Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Ecclesiastes 5:10–20 | Hebrews 4:1–13 | Mark 10:23–31

Text: Mark 10:23-31

Covering points from Formula of Concord – Article II on Free Will

Last week, we heard the rich man go away from Jesus disheartened by His invitation, “Follow me.”  It was quite sad, and actually remarkable that this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus’ invitation is refused.

There is good reason why the Holy Spirit included this in the Gospel.  Imagine if every time Jesus spoke to people, they believed, and every time He went to heal someone they were instantly made well [see Mark 8:22-26].  If this were the case, later generations of Jesus’ followers, like us, would get the idea something was wrong with us.  We share the Gospel with others today, don’t we?

(And we must share the Gospel, because we can’t assume that anyone will crack a Bible for themselves.  We also can’t even assume if they go to a church that claims to be Christian that they will hear the Gospel and not some Jesus-ified moralistic motivational speech.)

When we share the Gospel, the thing that causes us to wonder the most is why people don’t respond to God’s gracious invitation. 

This is a good occasion to review what God teaches us in His Word about the freedom of the human will and the power of sin over our will.  In other words, to answer questions like, “What powers in spiritual matters does a person have after the fall of our first parents and before regeneration? Can a person by his own powers—prior to and before his regeneration by God’s Spirit—get ready and prepare himself for God’s grace? Can a person accept and apprehend or reject the grace offered through the Holy Spirit in the Word?” (FC Epitome II 1)

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.”

Listen to the three things Jesus is saying here: 1) It is exceedingly difficult for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God, 2) how difficult for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God, and 3) it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.  Note these carefully, that in no case does Jesus say people will not enter the Kingdom.  Wealth in this life—“the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16)—is something that easily snares people and gives them an excuse to reject God’s call to repent and believe.  But in reality, the second thing Jesus says is the umbrella which covers the other two: “Children, how difficult it is to enter the Kingdom of God!”

So, let me get this right, Jesus.  You want us to go and preach the Gospel to the whole creation, and yet the task is difficult and even as likely as getting a camel to pass through the eye of a needle?!  That is to say, it’s not happening if it’s up to us.  Well, we’re not the first to balk at this:

26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

This is the answer to those questions I mentioned earlier from the Formula of Concord, as to how “free” our will is to hear God’s call to repent and believe the Gospel.  And we need to get this right to understand what happens when we share our faith in Christ.

Our Lord Jesus, who has given us His Word of life, says, “As far as man is concerned, it is impossible; but not as far as God is concerned.” (alternate translation of verse 27)

The rich man ended up with his eyes downcast because he was approaching the kingdom on human terms.  Remember how he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17)  Dr. James Voelz explains it this way:

“As far as man is concerned, the key to entry into [the kingdom] of God lies with demands, and, as a result, everything is understood as demand, even Jesus’ kindly/gracious invitation. Furthermore, as far as man is concerned, these demands cannot be fulfilled. It is for this reason that the rich man reacts the way he does.

“As far as God is concerned, however, the key to people entering His [kingdom] lies in Himself. He understands, not only that He is the Creator of all things [Gen. 1:1], not only that He is the one who chooses people to be His own [Deut. 7:6], but also that He alone is the one who saves and brings deliverance [Isa. 63:5].”[1]

To our natural human ears, God’s Word rings with demands and requirements, with untenable burdens.  Surely you’ve heard someone comment how restrictive Christianity is, and often they’ll complain about all they would have to give up.  But we should also be careful to share our faith in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a “you have to do this to please God” life. 

Yet we do need to understand the natural condition of ourselves and the people we talk to.  Here’s an illustration from the Formula of Concord, which you can think of when you see the ghoulish Halloween décor:

“As little as a corpse can quicken itself to bodily, earthly life, so little can man who through sin is spiritually dead raise himself to spiritual life, as it is written, ‘When we were dead through our trespasses, he made us alive together with Christ.’ [Eph. 2:5]” (Epitome II 3)  It’s not a matter of convincing them, selling them on Jesus, or cajoling them to make the right choice.  This is something that is tragically missed in modern American Christianity, which turns Jesus into a commodity.  Smart people choose Jesus.  Come to our church because we have social activities, a cheap coffee stand, free babysitting during worship, and music that you like.  “As far as man is concerned, it is impossible.”  No human wisdom or cunning will actually bring anyone into the Kingdom of God.  It may get them to participate in the group for a while, but only God is able to actually save them.

And God does do what is impossible with man, when and where it pleases Him when people hear the Gospel.  “God the Holy Spirit, however, does not bring about conversion without means. For this purpose He uses the preaching and hearing of God’s Word, as it is written in Romans 1:16, the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Also Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” It is God’s will that His Word should be heard and that a person’s ears should not be closed (Psalm 95:8). With this Word the Holy Spirit is present and opens hearts, so that people (like Lydia in Acts 16:14) pay attention to it and are converted only through the Holy Spirit’s grace and power, who alone does the work of converting a person.” (Ep. II 4-5)

“The rich man failed because he looked only to the sacrifice he would have to make.” (Byrne, 164)  But what God the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to see is the greatest sacrifice, which God made to win us helpless sinners.

Second only to the question of why some believe and others don’t is…why me?  Why was God’s call to follow Jesus effective for me?  Please rest assured that it was not because of anything in you.  This is why it is called grace, and why your faith is called “ a gift of God, not the result of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9).

28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Like us, Peter notices that they did follow him, and for the twelve in particular, they did leave everything without hesitation.  So what about them, and for that matter, what about us?  Jesus has already hinted at how precious faith in the grace of God is.  He calls them “Children” which reminds them and us to keep our eyes on our Heavenly Father for all these things.  And because God is our Father, He will certainly take care of us, no matter what may be lost for the sake of knowing Him.  Whether it means being cut off from our family because we belong to Christ, or losing our goods or job because we refuse to deny Him.  God our Father is readily able to give us our eternal family—brothers and sisters in Christ—houses if we have been forsaken, goods for what we’ve lost.  Yes, also persecutions, but those last for a time and then pass.  Whatever you may have had to leave in order to heed Jesus’ call, “Follow me,” your Father will provide, and forever you will have eternal life.  Confident of this, and by the Holy Spirit, we can say,  “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

The rich and popular may be honored and considered first now, but it actually depends on God who works all this, who makes the dead in sin alive in Christ, and who keeps His children through many trials. When Christ comes again in glory and for judgement, God will display them first of all as His priceless treasures—even His beloved children.  Amen.

[1] Voelz, James, “Concordia Commentary: Mark.” pp. 754-755

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 | Hebrews 3:12–19 | Mark 10:17–22

Text: Mark 10:17-22

Covering Points From: Formula of Concord, Article VI – The Third Use of the Law

You may or may not remember this from Catechism class, but there are three uses for the Law of God, and in this encounter that Jesus has with this young man, all three are at work.

The man comes to Jesus and asks the right kind of question—one which few ask today—“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He is actually desiring to have eternal life, as opposed to eternal death.  Jesus engages him in conversation about this, because it is such an important topic.  First, with a mild rebuke about calling Him a good teacher, because it misses His divinity.  Then, “You know the commandments.”  He calls this young Israelite back to his catechism days and asks him to recall the Commandments of God.  Specifically, he names the second table of the Law, those Commandments which govern our life before our neighbor.

The dialog starts with the first use of the Law, the Curb.  The Curb is that aspect of the Ten Commandments that wisely stood before courthouses in our land.  It’s what God wrote into the hearts of all people, and any who have not seared their conscience will acknowledge the truth of God’s commands.  C.S. Lewis in his work, Abolition of Man, even provided a catalog of testimonies from cultures all over the world called Illustrations of the Tao.  In it, you find examples of prohibiting murder, adultery, theft, false witness, fraud, and dishonoring father and mother.  This is written so deep in our conscience that when you see people today defending their violation of these truths, you can hear how loudly they speak to silence the voice of conscience.

The young man in the Gospel responds, “All these I have kept from my youth.”  He has been a God-fearing, moral man.  He’s the kind of guy you would want your daughter to marry, if morals and money were all you were looking for.  It’s not that he’s claiming to be without sin, but that He has treasured God’s Word, which reveals the truth of how His human creatures are to live.

Then comes the second use of the Law, the Mirror: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  This is where the Law gets personal, and shows us where we have fallen short and sinned against God and our neighbor.  “Through the Law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20)  Jesus looks at him and loves Him.  He desires more for this man than that he be a good, moral individual, the kind of person people eulogize after their death, but yet someone who is lost in the fires of hell.  God does not desire of the death of the sinner, but that He repent—turn from his sin—and live.  Jesus looks at this man, and loves Him enough to show him his own sin.

Even though He has kept all the moral commands, and before others appears to be a righteous and upstanding man, his sin is getting in the way of that goal of eternal life.  This is where the Commandments are more than a bronze dedication in front of a court, but rather a Word from God that speaks to each person individually.  That’s why the advice in the hymnal for individual Confession says, “You may prepare yourself by meditating on the Ten Commandments.” (LSB 292)  The rich young man had kept the Commandments as a curb against gross sin, but God loved him and digs deeper into his heart, and desires life for Him.  He prepares him for confession by showing him his sin, with the desire that he might see that he has run to the right place and that he is standing right in front of his Savior!

The same is true for you.  God desires your life beyond just the here and now, your health, your family being happy, your daily existence being comfortable.  He wants you to live eternally and, by all means, be saved from the fiery and eternal punishments of hell, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48, citing Isaiah 66:24)  Every time you come to Him, whether it be at church or in your daily devotions, you are running to the right place: Where the God who treasures your salvation speaks to you.  He will speak something in His Law that your sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear.  It may be earthly wealth getting in the way of your honest hearing of God’s Word.  It is wherever you say to yourself, “Yeah, that’s true, but not for me.”  For others, it’s the other commandments that snare them, and call out those places where we have set up our trust and hope in created things, rather than our Creator and Savior [Rom. 1:25].

But when that second use of the Law shows us our sin, God leads us to His Son, who was rejected, nailed to the cross, died, and was buried.  There, the wrath your sin deserves has already been punished.  The wrath of God is finished on the cross of His Son, in order that you would hear His peace and pardon.  The mirror of the Law is what brings us to the foot of the cross, and pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

Even though the pericope (the section of Scripture that is “cut out” for today) ends there, God has yet one more way that He uses His Law: As a guide for the lives of His redeemed and forgiven Christians.  This is what follows all the “buts” in the explanation that Luther wrote for the Commandments.  For example, in the second, “We should fear and love God so that we do not lie or deceive by His Name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.”  This is what God is teaching He does want His reconciled children to be doing.  And this is what we do, as new creations in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Holy Baptism, you were crucified with Christ and raised to new life with Him (Romans 6:1-11).  For you, the Third Use of the Law is where God is explaining to us what the new Us should do. This is the instruction and admonition of the Lord for His children [Eph. 6:4]. 

The rich young man cut out of the scene before he reached this confession of faith, that Jesus is the Savior of sinners like him.  But you have not.  You are here, confessing Jesus to be your Savior, who has ransomed you from the futile ways inherited from your father, and his father before him [1 Peter 1:18].  You are the beginning of that new creation, and you have heard the Lord’s admonition to you.  He has looked at you and loved you, so what is contrary to His will in your heart?  What do you need to surrender in order that you may inherit eternal life?

The answer to this question is personal, and comes in answer to a heartfelt prayer.  You may struggle with the answer, but remember the Lord who looks at each of us and loves you.  He calls out whatever may stand in the way of you receiving eternal life.  Is it to honor your father and mother and other authorities? Is it for the life God has given to others?  Is it for the holy estate of marriage?  Is it for protecting and improving your neighbors possessions?  Is it to use your tongue to speak well of others?  Is it your proclivity to covet what God has given others?

Whatever your sin may be, the Lord Jesus looks upon you and loves you.  He desires you to have that eternal life you seek, despite the weakness of your sin.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, give your sin to Him.  Let it be nailed to the cross [Col. 2:14], that your life may be saved and you may have that free gift of eternal life.  In Jesus, your Savior your sins are taken away, and you are given a new birth, a new heart, and an eternal future where you will receive a treasure that makes everything else pale in comparison!  Praise be to God through Jesus our Savior! Amen.

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: Mark 12:28-37

I think all of us would agree that idolatry is foolish.  The idea of manmade gods is a ridiculous notion.  The Lord, through Isaiah gives this illustration in chapter 44:

He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. 16 Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” (Isaiah 44:14-17)

It’s a good thing we modern people are smarter than all that.  God said not to make any graven image and bow down to it, and these days it seems pretty easy to avoid that, right?  Or is it?

Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism about the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”:

“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.

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.” (Large Catechism, First Commandment 2-3)

Jesus responds, quoting Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  Originally, this was spoken to Israel as they came out of polytheistic Egypt.  As Mark writes this Gospel for the Christians at Rome, they too are stepped in pantheism. There are gods for every aspect of life, and they weren’t shy at offering prayers to them. Even their Caesar claims to be a son of the gods.

We’re more sophisticated in the things we put our trust in.  We don’t call them gods necessarily; but you can identify them by the way people talk about and react.  Science will surely do us good, and studies have proven it to be true and effective.  Equality is the noble virtue of our day and woe to the person who stands in its way.  Inclusion is revered among many, but often applied contrary to Biblical teaching. Health and wellness is such a goal in life that we are willing to sink thousands, if not in some cases, millions of dollars, to achieve and extend the length and “quality of life” before we breathe our last.

Against this backdrop, we are called to confess, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

The God we worship, who has claimed us, is an exclusive God.  The gods of today are okay working together, and in fact, the more of them you embrace whole-heartedly, the smarter they say you’ll be.  But the Lord your God is one Lord.  You shall have no other gods before Him.  Luther explains this by saying, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” (Small Catechism explanation)  What does this mean?

Fear – I acknowledge that there is only this one God.  All other candidates are unacceptable.  Fear does not mean if we misstep, we face His wrath, because we also believe in what He did on the cross where Christ bore the wrath of God and was truly forsaken (Matt. 27:45-46)

Love – I give my whole being to God.  There is no part way, and God is not just a pastime to be interested in when things aren’t hectic. He is the object of our devotion and because of Who He is and what He has done for us, we would gladly do what He tells us.

Trust – This is because of God’s character.  He is worthy of trust, because He keeps His Word: When He says He saves, He does (Matt. 1:23); when He says He is good and works all things—even evil things—for good, He does (Gen. 50:20).  It is God’s trustworthiness that our heart clings to when our road is dark and we cannot see, in the night of terrible loss, in disaster, or in times of war.

So the Lord Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”

Heart – The total devotion of the individual to God. “God is not the only option, but He is the only possibility.” (David Scaer)  Here our affections are tempted and drawn away by trust in those “other options” because they provide some level of security and good.

Soul – The soul (psyche) is the part of us that has to do with the things of this world.  To love God with all one’s soul is to do away with attachment to the things of this world and put God there.  Moth, rust, thieves, and death may take everything else. He is the only One who will not fail you. 

Mind – This is your inner dialog, your reasoning.  Your mind is what keeps you up at 3 A.M. worrying about what might happen or mulling over regrets and frustrations.  It’s your mind that runs the narrative that decides how you will act, what you will say. But this is what the psalmist means when He says, “On His instruction he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

Strength (unique to Mark) – To love the Lord with all your strength means devoting your ability to the Lord—whether you are healthy and can help others with projects, older but still driving and giving rides, or homebound and able to pray for one another and if you can call or write. It is the strength God gives you, however small or great.

These things are so important that they are echoed by this scribe: “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”   In response to this, Jesus tells this man that He is not far from the Kingdom of God.  So close, in fact, that he is looking it in the face.

“How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? 36 David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.” ’”

We do not meet this one, true God apart from the Man born of Mary. In Him, “the whole fullness of God dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). There is no other god and no other name under heaven by which men might be saved (Acts 4:12). We meet Him in His Word and in His risen Body hidden under bread and even in our neighbor. We are not meeting a mere man, we are meeting David’s Lord, our Creator and Savior.

This mystery that God has become Man and has humbled Himself as a Man to bear our burdens, to take our punishment, and to be killed while never ceasing to be God Almighty is the central reality of our Theology. The mystery of the Incarnation is inseparable from all other topics of theology or from any possible theological question. “All Theology is Christology” because there is no God but Christ. The Lord our God is One. His Name is Jesus for He saves His people.

And it is this one Lord, fully Man and fully God, who gives us His risen Body and Blood, which alone have the power to take away sin, strengthen us in our weakness, and give us a foretaste of the world to come.  After we receive this, we usually pray, “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…”

And that brings us back to the Second great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  We are a people who have been blessed with this knowledge of the one, true God, who created us, redeems us, and sanctifies us.  But as can be seen in the world in which we live, how few people know this.  They are the victims of pantheism, of the degrading practices with which men and women abuse each other and numb the pain.

Something that struck me in the presentations from Dr. Phil Brandt this past week on Christian evangelism in the first few centuries is how they saw the people around them as first of all human beings, created in God’s image.  Having been enlightened by the Word of God, they could see in the accepted culture all kinds of idolatry, abuse, and no dignity for certain people.

Most of the time when we see the state of the world and society, it’s because we are comparing it to Christendom. We are outraged over witnessing the people of the world abandon the biblical ethics which endured for centuries. And yes, grieving the loss is natural, but we also need to move past that.

It doesn’t help that the Church is one of those “institutions” that society is rebelling against.  In reprehension toward those whose morals fell short of Christian morals, the “Church” (meaning Christians) has protested, yelled, and used the condemnation of the Law to bring back these erring. But how can they return to what they were never taught?

The landscape of Christian witness, in western society today, is far different than when the LWML started in 1942.  The truth of the Bible means virtually nothing, so if we were to quote what we regard as Sacred Scripture, they might find other Bible passages to throw back in our face and shout that we have no right to judge.  Their authorities are their peers, the law of the land, and feelings.

When we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves, our Lord is teaching us to love them as human beings.  See that person undergoing gender transition and try to discern what inner torture or abuse drove them to mutilate their body.  When we see a young woman dressed in revealing clothing, to understand the sway of pornography that objectifies a woman’s body and the message she hears that she is only worthy if she can tease and please the opposite sex.  When you see hillsides adorned with tent communities, consider the needs of those people for clean water and sanitation, and that many of them have untreated diseases of mind and body.

Then may the Church be the sanctuary to the lies and death in the world.  Remember what the Lord our God who is one Lord has done and is doing: through the incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, God has made His Church the outpost of the new creation in this dying world.  The Kingdom of God is where the image of God is being restored, where loving your neighbor is not the flighty emotion, and where those who are poor in the world are made rich in faith and heirs of eternity [James 2:5].

We thank God this day, and every month when we collect our mites, for the ways that these funds are able to support grants to many outreaches here and around the world.  We also thank the Lord our God, who puts His mission directly in our lives. And we pray that through our humble lives of loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, that they too may rejoice in God’s Christ.  Amen.

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+ Holy Baptism of Blair Elouise Rosenbaum +

Readings: Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29 | James 5:1–20 | Mark 9:38–50

Text: Mark 9:38-50

(covering points of Formula of Concord, Article V – Law and Gospel)

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

Imagine for a moment what the church, pictured by Jesus disciples, would be if they had their way.  Call it the “Church of the Twelve.”  There would be an emphasis on who has the authority.  Power and permission would flow through them, the gatekeepers.  There might be tiers of membership, because after all you have to tell who’s the greatest somehow. Decisions would flow from the top down, and people would be obligated, if not compelled, to conform.

Within the Church of Twelve, there would be certain standards for members to maintain.  If you didn’t meet the “community standards,” you would face discipline and exclusion.  If someone were to upset the order with dissension, those in authority would have to evaluate if they were still an asset or a detriment to the community.  They would deem it necessary to lose one or two or a few, for the sake of preserving the whole.

Thank God in heaven that Jesus crushes the disciples plans for the Church.  But as these tendencies arise from our sinful flesh, they still make their way in at times.  Even at the Church at Corinth in the 50’s AD, there was already a party spirit growing, “each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’” (1 Cor. 1:12)  This had also begun to divide the weak from the strong over knowledge about meat offered to idols and who got to take the Lord’s Supper. 

At various times this has continued, fueled by a focus not on the things of God, but on the things of man—of personalities, and numbers of followers.  Former Presbyterian minister, Barton Stone, once wrote, “Partyism is a foul blot on Christianity, and among the blackest stains on the character of its professors. An apostle calls such ‘carnal.’ Partyism is directly opposed to the plan of Heaven, which is to gather into one, or unite all, in Christ Jesus.”[1]

So what is most important to the Lord Jesus for His Church? 

39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 For the one who is not against us is for us. 41 For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward.

Let’s pull back to why Jesus came to earth, and what the goal of the Kingdom of God is.  Is it not because the world is under the domination of Satan, and that men and women are held captive by sin and death?  And did Jesus not come to break the unchallenged rule of Satan and to free the captives?  So, tell me again what happened?  Demons were being cast out in Jesus’ Name.  If that’s what was happening, why did you want to stop that?  And do you remember how you were not able to cast out that demon in the father’s son? (Mark 9:14-29)  So it’s the goal that people believe in Jesus Christ and receive His victory over devil, sin, and death?  Yes, this is good.

It would be even better if all those who have faith in Jesus’ Name would join together and not walk apart from each other.  Barton Stone, who was instrumental in the Church of Christ movement, had the right idea, but it didn’t work out.  We have at least two things that prevent genuine unity in the Church on earth. Our old Adam is a hopeless partisan.  The voice of Moses echoes, “Are you jealous for my sake?” (Num. 11:29).  Besides, Satan himself twists the Word of God so that we are bent on following all sorts of strange doctrines and partial truths.

Our current setting in the world is also no help either, because it conditions us in the art of demonization.  By use of distance/isolation, slogans, and labels, we’ve found ways to pigeon-hole others and not even bother to take the time to have a civil, face-to-face conversation.  Based on what political party you follow, what’s your vaccine status, or even your outward appearance, we judge others and are judged.  I’m telling you this not to raise your blood pressure, but so that you see how easily we fall into parties, and how quickly that takes the focus of the goals of God’s Kingdom.

The most important thing to Jesus is salvation for all who believe in His Name.  This faith is God’s work by His Spirit: “I believe that…the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.  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.”  What’s more, God doesn’t respect personalities when He does His work.  To prove this point, He even once opened the mouth of a donkey (Numbers 22:22-33).  Whether it is a mighty work, or something as simple as giving a cup of water because someone belongs to Christ, what truly matters is faith in the heart, which shows the Kingdom of God has come near.

The same is true inside the congregation, where those who do follow Jesus together, are gathered:

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

Jesus prizes the gift of faith and people being welcomed and kept in His Kingdom.  He speaks about things that “cause to sin,” which is the Greek word for scandalize or cause to stumble.  That comes from the image of following Jesus, walking along The Way (the first name for New Testament Church, Acts 24:14)  So, to make a follower of Jesus stumble is to endanger their faith and all that comes from it.

To illustrate how important this is to Jesus, remember last September, during the fires, when some places we live were under Level 2 for evacuation.  At that point, you were supposed to have your car packed with whatever was most precious and essential.  Come Level 3, anything else could burn, and you’d get by.  Picture that now with what Jesus is saying about the faith of His little ones.  The faith of even the least of His brothers is so precious to Him that everything else can go, so that no soul may be lost. 

The Church of the Twelve would see fit to cast out the problem cases, or cast out those who can’t “pull their weight”.  They would get rid of the least, the fussy children, those who simply bring their family to church, or the infirm who can’t do anything like they used to.  But Jesus turns that around to say what really needs to be cut off is whatever endangers faith.  No matter how precious it is, whether hand, foot, or eye, if it causes you or others to stumble, then that is what is expendable.  It would be better to lose that, than to lose a whole person to the eternal fires of hell.

With such a treasure as faith is to our Lord Jesus, we had also better know how that faith is properly nurtured.  That is by properly handling the word of truth, as St. Paul urges Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:15)  Rightly handling the Word of truth is crucial to cultivating that saving faith.  What I mean by that is properly distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, “the distinction between Law and Gospel is an especially glorious light that is to be maintained with great diligence in the church.” (Formula of Concord Epitome V, 2)  The Law is “a divine doctrine which teaches what is right and God-pleasing and which condemns everything that is sinful and contrary to God’s will.” (FC Ep. V, 3) and the Gospel is “teaches what a man who has not kept the law and is condemned by it should believe, namely, that Christ has satisfied and paid for all guilt and without man’s merit has obtained and won for him forgiveness of sins, the ‘righteousness that avails before God,’ and eternal life.” (FC Ep. V 5)

It’s dangerous to faith when Law and Gospel are confused—when the person who feels godly sorrow for his sin is condemned for not trying harder; and when the erring are given a free pass.  This confusion causes great damage because it results in proud Christians who think sin is no big deal, and despairing souls who think they could never be saved.  What a terrible outcome!  So the Lord gives His Word, and His preachers to carefully apply His Word to His little ones, whose life is so precious to Him.

He concludes today’s reading with the admonition, 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Have salt in yourselves means that our Lord wills us to be the community of the saved.  The Church is not your school or workplace, where it depends on popularity or who you know.  It’s not a social club that you belong to sometimes, and join in based on your convenience and availability.  As I mentioned before, the whole purpose of the Church is to be the place where the Kingdom of God breaks into the dominion of Satan, freeing men from their bondage to sin and death.  Where the Church is doing that, she follows in the steps of the Son of God Himself. 

Make peace with each other, indeed with all who the Lord has called in His Name.  Whether they are small or great, well-taught or needing guidance, be at peace as God has made peace with us by the Name of Jesus Christ.

God’s intended goal is to give sinners life.  Cast out demons, rescue, raise from the dead, redeem from the curse of the Law.  All this comes to you in the Name of Jesus, in which we gather, into which we are baptized, in which we call upon Him as beloved children, in which He gathers us to eat and drink, and the Name by which He puts on us as we depart from this place.

In this, we are salted to live sacrificial lives and make peace with each other, as the Lord has made peace with us.  And then He sends out by the powerful peace-making work of His Name: “The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace. Peace be with you, in that powerful, saving, glorious Name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] “An Address to the Churches” (1818)

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Jeremiah 11:18–20 | James 3:13—4:10 | Mark 9:30–37

Text: James 3:13—4:10

(covering points from Formula of Concord, Article III – The Righteousness of Faith)

“Even in Your Weakness, He is Strong to Save”

Why do Christians act so unchristian sometimes?  Bitter divisions and resentment separate people from the congregation, and congregations from one another.  “Oh, you go to that church?  I used to go there until…”  Or, I’m so sure that my way of understanding the Bible is right, that I refuse to listen to someone who might tell me something different.  Or, I can’t believe that just came out of the mouth of a believer.  Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?  Or maybe the most convicting, “You’re a Christian? I never would have guessed…”

Each of us has stories where we’ve been on the receiving end or been the one acting not like a child of God should.  And how do you respond to that?  With all the other wrong stuff we bear and try to cope with each day, it might be easies to say, “Well, it could be worse. At least it wasn’t as bad as what other people do.”  Maybe that’s how you’ve even tried to excuse yourself.

But James doesn’t let this slide.  He doesn’t let the offending brother off, and has some very stern words for the unchristian behavior of those who claim the Name of the Lord.  Far from what usually happens today, where we’re worried about hurting people’s feelings with rebuke, this Word of God says it how it is.

Right after his warning and rebuke of those who teach in the Church, he adds in today’s reading,

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

You think you know something?  You think that makes you better than the untrained or the ignorant?  Think again.  That kind of know-it-all outlook is busy trying to build itself up, and actually grows out of something more insidious.  It is earthly, fleshly, and—yes—demonic.  It’s earthly like the Tower of Babel, where they tried to make a name for themselves by their own prowess (Gen. 11:1-9).  It’s unspiritual (fleshly), because our old Adam does not want God telling him what’s what, because “the natural [unspiritual] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him and he is not able to understand them.” (1 Cor. 2:14)  And worst of all, Satan and his demons are at work, stoking the fires of pride and dissension.  And all this is happening for believers

But it doesn’t just vex our personal sense of accomplishment.  This vileness spills over into our life with others.  James continues:

4 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

If only it were as simple as adopting an “attitude of gratitude,” or just purging desire from our hearts.  People have certainly tried to stem the fights by preaching contentment with what we’re given, bloom where we’re planted, and so forth.  Even more so, we are children of the God who made heaven and earth.  We know that it is He who provides all that we need for this life and more.  But even still, we find ourselves dissatisfied, fixating on what we don’t have, idolizing what our neighbor has.  Sometimes we even have the nerve to drag God into our selfish aspirations by abusing the gift of prayer to demanding that He give it to us.

What is worldly, fleshly, and demonic in us is right there, urging us on.  Rather than picture ourselves as an impartial observer, an actor who is free to go this way or that, James and Paul both describe there being a battle going on inside of the Christian.  It is an all-out fight between our passions and the Spirit whom God graciously pours out upon us.  The way St. Paul explains it in Galatians 5 is, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal. 5:17)

So, what’s the solution for our sinful flesh and its works?  Not to ignore it, because it will only grow bolder.  Small sins snowball into greater sins if left unchecked because the problem is in the corrupt heart.  Don’t shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess that’s just how it goes” because it is not inevitable that we choose to do evil, and it is certainly not God’s will!  The solution isn’t to make excuses for it or try to keep it under wraps.  Think of the secret sins of your life—resentments, adulterous urges, coveting. Do they get better by trying to keep them secret?  Is it really any help to say, “At least I didn’t act on it?”  It’s still sin, and you need God’s solution for sin.  All others roads lead to death.

James continues:

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

Sin must be exposed and called what it is.  Sin loves the darkness, as the Lord explains in John 3, “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:20-21)  And that is what God gives His Holy Spirit to us to do.  For Him, there’s no sitting by and letting things run their natural course.  He is a jealous God and will not share you with the deceptive world, or let your old Adam run the show, or permit the devil to tear you away from Him.  When you and I have committed spiritual adultery (or literal adultery), He calls us out on it because that’s the rebuke we need to hear.  The flesh needs to be put to death.  Specifically, crucified with Christ, and all sins (and the desires to commit them) nailed to the cross to die with Jesus.

This is also why Jesus commends verbal confession of sins to us, because by confessing—saying the same thing as God,[1] we are turning away[2] from the darkness and to the light of Christ.  By saying it out loud, preferably before a confessor like your pastor, you are owning it.  You are acknowledging the truth and entrusting yourself to the Lord’s mercy. And that’s when the Lord’s servant says to you, “In the stead, and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins—yes, including those filthy, wicked ones you don’t even want your kids to know about, and might not even tell your spouse or best friend—I forgive you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

This is the comfort of the Christian—that Christ only is our righteousness before God.  Very often we will look for victory over sin by how we’ve changed.  In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees taught righteousness in obeying the letter of the Law.  In the Medieval church, one’s righteousness was how much they did in service to God.  Today, Christians are taught that a changed life is where righteousness is found—not drinking or smoking, getting off the drugs, stopping swearing, giving to the needy, and so forth.  There’s nothing wrong with living a clean, moral life—and we should aspire to that!  But that is not where our righteousness before God is.  Think of it this way: One of us walks out of church today, having heard the absolution, truly believing that Christ has given us His Body and Blood to forgive and strengthen us…and then backslides.  If righteousness is in our changed behavior, where’s the consolation now?  If this is what we have to cling to, then the peace of the Gospel disappears like fog.

The only solid comfort is that Christ is the one whose perfect work makes us accepted in God’s sight.  Hear how St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 8: “33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (Rom. 8:33-34)  God justifies us because of Christ, who died and was raised. And what’s more is He now intercedes for us!

And how we need His intercession—His prayer on our behalf—because we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment (Small Catechism, Lord’s Prayer).  We are soldiers on the spiritual battlefield, men of dust who have often failed [Ps. 103:10-14].  Our weakness is not reason to doubt, because God’s saving Word to us is what is true and faithful.  Our forefathers in the faith write, “many weaknesses and defects cling to the true believers and truly regenerate, even up to the day they are buried [1 John 1:8]. Still, they must not on that account doubt either their righteousness, which has been credited to them through faith, or the salvation of their souls. They must regard it as certain that for Christ’s sake, according to the promise and ‹immovable› Word of the Holy Gospel, they have a gracious God.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article III, 9)

And James goes on, But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

God opposes your pride, that He might rightly humble you.  You wouldn’t have known how much you needed His salvation if you never thought you were that bad.  Commit yourself once more (day after day) to God, resist the devil, forsake the mind set on the flesh, leave the world to its own evil plans.  As for you and the Holy Spirit, you will serve the Lord [Josh. 24:15].  Let your old Adam’s pride be brought to nothing, and the things he delights in be counted as rubbish for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ your Lord.  As it says in Psalm 4, “Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord! You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7)

And He will exalt His humble children, weak though we are, not because of our strength, but because of His righteous work, His perfect Son, His powerful Word through which He draws near to you, and His holy gifts, through which He assures you, even in weakness that He is strong to save. Amen.

[1] The Greek word for “confess” homologeo means “to say the same”

[2] The Hebrew word for “repent” shuv means “to turn back”

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Isaiah 50:4–10 | James 3:1–12 | Mark 9:14-29

Text: Mark 9:14-29

covering points from the Formula of Concord, Article I – Original Sin

“To Shine on Those Who Sit in Darkness and the Shadow of Death”

Arguing, suffering from childhood, inability to help, exasperation, unbelief, convulsions, and near death—This is what the Lord Jesus walks into in today’s account from the Gospel.  And we will see how He comes to the aid of those who live in darkness and under the dark shadow of death. 

Jesus walks into this agonizing scene with a father grasping to find healing for his son, who is tortured by violent seizures or demonic origin.  The father is at his wit’s end and doesn’t have anywhere else to turn.  Now the disciples of Jesus, the good Teacher and worker of great signs, haven’t been able to help and he is forlorn.  On top of all that, an argument has arisen with the scribes, which puts relief for this man’s son even farther out of reach.

In the middle of this murky circumstance, filled with pain, Jesus—the One through Whom all things were created, Who has humbled Himself in order to deliver and redeem us from sin, death, and Satan—says, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.”

We’re taken aback at this rebuke, because it’s not just directed at the crowd that day arguing this way and that; it’s aimed at all the generation after the Fall—all the sons of Adam and Eve.  We know it’s bad, but think we were bad enough to exasperate our Creator.  But Jesus brings light from above, unsullied by the darkness of this broken creation.

The people that day were closer than we are to seeing with the light of God’s Word.  After all, they had scribes there, who were well-acquainted with the Scriptures.  But if the darkness was bad on that occasion, imagine how much worse it is the further people go from their Creator.

You see that in many ways in our neighbors today.  Lacking the instruction and direction of their Creator, they are wrestling with basic questions about what it means to be a human.  Is gender a given or a choice?  What does it mean to be a parent?  Are we more than what our medical chart says?  What causes people to break out in such rash violence?

Right now, common wisdom is to understand and define human beings by what is, to try and discern what makes people work based on what’s normal.  Only when something is grossly out of balance, like a heinous crime, do we wonder what went wrong in that person?  That shooter, that terrorist, that mentally unstable person.

I think Christians are uniquely poised to understand and answer what’s broken about humanity because our Creator has revealed Himself to us through His Son.  As Christians, who have been gifted with God’s Word, we are taught to see humanity in terms of what ought to be

We learn about what humanity ought to be from the difference between what God created us to be and what happened when sin came into the world.  Understanding original sin is key to getting an understanding on what’s wrong with the world.  There are several theories people have come up with, which are misunderstandings about original sin, so let’s hear those first and see if you recognize them or have though them yourself.

“That’s just the way people are.” or “I can’t help myself.”  This is the belief that humans are irreparably evil and there’s nothing to be done about it.  It leads people to the “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” attitude, or the self-loathing that thinks human beings are a scourge on the planet that must be eradicated.

Another approach is the belief that deep down nobody’s really a bad person.  Somehow, you just need to see past the thorny exterior.  Given enough opportunities, reeducation, time to reflect, or someone to love them, they could be reformed.  This idea is very popular in movie villains from the past few decades.  Nobody is really all evil.  It’s just nobody’s taken the time to get to know him and he’s just working out his unresolved issues.  But you see it in action stories about criminals, trying to arouse sympathy for the poor, misunderstood young man.  What this does, however, is—ever so subtly—to exonerate the person from the things they do.   

The last misunderstanding is to say that people at their core are good, but it was because some external influence corrupted them.  If only it hadn’t been for those violent video games, the young man wouldn’t have gone on a rampage.  If the suburban white boy hadn’t been radicalized by Al Qaeda, he wouldn’t have become a terrorist.  This pictures evil as some force that’s out there, and corrupts what would otherwise be a healthy, rational person.

All the explanations that people can offer bring up some good points, and they shouldn’t just be dismissed as if they have no idea what they’re talking about.  But the problem is that they don’t get the whole picture.  They don’t realize all that sin did to humanity.  When you talk about “sin,” usually what comes to mind is specific things people do.  That’s why people think of little children as innocent, and who would call a dear, little child a sinner?  But that’s not what God’s Word says: “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21) and “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5).  This is how God teaches us to think about sin.  In other words, “Christians must regard and recognize as sin not only the actual transgression of God’s commandments but also, and primarily, the abominable and dreadful inherited disease which has corrupted our entire nature. In fact, we must consider this as the chief sin, the root and fountain of all actual sin.” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. I, 5)

This “inherited disease” infects all people.  It’s worse than cancer, because it can’t be located in one part of the body and separated out from the healthy cells.  No surgery or treatment can be devised on earth to excise our sin, but no doubt people have tried, as St. Paul mentions in Colossians 2, “Why do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”… 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:20-23)

But there is a distinction between what God created good—body, soul, eyes, ears, reason, emotions, senses—and original sin that corrupts all of those things.  It deforms bodies, blinds eyes, deafens ears, darkens reason, causes emotions like wrath and anxiety to break loose, and makes people dull and callous.  But still, in God’s sight, there is a difference between what He created, because He is not the author of any evil, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you.” (Ps. 5:4)  From our perspective, though, we can’t tell what’s what.

In fact, listen to the struggle in the boy’s father in the Gospel:

21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

For one, he can’t tell what’s the demon’s influence; all he can see is his son being thrown into fire or water.  But then look how he sees Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion and help us.”  It’s full of doubt, and as James later writes, “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:6-7)  But when Jesus challenges him on the, “if,” he cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

And that is the experience of every Christian.  Just because God exposes what sin has done to “the highest and foremost powers of the soul in mind, heart, and will” (FC SD I, 11), we still struggle with the powerful work of sin even in our faith.  We can scarcely tell the difference when our sinful flesh gets the upper hand, because it’s our mind, our hands, our tongue that are indulging in sin. Corrupt as we are, what hope can there be for us?  Like the father’s prayer, “Help my unbelief,” we also hear the words of St. Paul: 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:21-24)  

The only way that we can even begin to get a handle on the difference between our unbelief and our faith is by the power of God’s Word.  In mercy, He is able to separate between the fruit of sin and the work of God.  What’s more, He is also gracious to forgive us for not just individual sins, but He forgives the whole person, unclean, broken, doubting, and brings you to Himself, sinful though you are.  Our experience can preach very loud and convincingly, and might lead us to our own conclusions about sin and its remedy.

But God doesn’t leave us in our weakness.  He did not leave the poor father in his doubt, but gave what weak faith he had something to cling to: 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.”  The father had his son back, freed from the demon, brought down to the grave and raised up again.

This is the magnitude of what the Lord does for the sinners who follow Him today—you and I.  And the things He gives our faith to cling to are there to convince us over against the preaching of our sin.  That’s what the Sacraments He instituted are for.  Consider what is said about Baptism: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7)  This is a trustworthy saying, because in our Baptism, God assures us of His regenerative work, His work to renew us back to the image of our Creator (Col. 3:10).  That may not be what we see today, because today we might be seeming to lose the battle with sin.  But God helps our unbelief with His external promise: “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11)

And that He confirms when you are absolved: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” and “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.” (John 20:22, Matt. 18:18)  There it is: Even though you are sinful from conception, though your sin has broken out in minor or horrible ways, they are forgiven, nailed to the cross, died with Christ and you are raised with Him!

And He is still not done confirming His grace toward us poor, miserable sinners: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor. 11:23-26)  If we look to ourselves, our strength, our determination to live a godly life and to do better next time, we will be let down.  So, Jesus takes us out of the mire of our own frailty and sets our feet upon the Rock (Ps. 40:2).  Here, beloved by the Lord, trust not in your own flesh and blood, but receive His Body and Blood, given and shed for you.  He gives them to you to forgive you, to strengthen you, to assure you of peace in heaven and bringing all His saving work to remembrance in this moment.

And that enables us to know not only the depth of human depravity, but also the Lord’s mercy and grace toward our sinful generation.  It’s may be surprising the ways that the sinful flesh gains power over people, but remember the Lord’s power to save sinners from this darkness and certain death.  He sends you and I as ambassadors, ourselves having been saved from the tyranny of sin, to declare the wrath of God which comes against all ungodliness, and the perfect sacrifice which God gave to rescue and reconcile to Himself this world of lost souls.  Peace be with you in Jesus Christ! Amen

“Good Works are Necessary (not for Salvation)”

Readings: Isaiah 35:4–7a | James 2:1-26 | Mark 7:24–37

Text: James 2:1-26 (covering points from the Formula of Concord, Article IV – Good Works)

“Good Works Are Necessary for Salvation.

Ever since the time of the Reformation lead by Martin Luther, good works have been a point of contention.  The Reformers pointed out the gross error of the Roman church which was teaching that our works merited God’s favor.  In response, the Romanists accused the Reformers of encouraging an inactive and libertine Christianity by forbidding good works.

This carried on for the next fifty years in Evangelical churches (later called Lutheran), in arguments by Reformation teachers saying, on the one hand, “Good works are necessary for salvation” (Philip Melanchthon) and “No one has ever been saved without good works” (George Major), to on the other hand, “Good works are detrimental to salvation” (Nicholas von Amsdorf).  In the midst of all this reactionary madness, Christian charity was warped into this self-conscious act where nobody could just do good in response to God’s grace.  Then people would be asking themselves, “Am I doing this to get on God’s good side?” or “I’m saved by grace through faith, and it’s fine if I don’t do anything.”

But the best way to handle misunderstandings and disagreements in the Church is by teaching.  This starts with defining terms, because, as we know from the emotionally-charged rhetoric of our day, a mere word can lead to heated arguments.  “Good works” was a freighted term, because it had meant whatever you did for God and the Church: “[observing] holy days, particular fasts, brotherhoods, pilgrimages, services in honor of the saints, the use of rosaries, monasticism, and such things” (Augsburg Confession, Article XX 3).  It’s gotten a little better, because now people associate good works with activities that actually help your neighbor.  But why are they called good?  As Jesus once said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)  If something is to be called ‘good,’ it’s because it comes from God.  So, a good work is work that God empowers.  Sure, anyone, regardless of where their heart is, can do outward good, but only a Christian can do good works, because only a Christian has God working in them by His Spirit.

The other part is the works themselves.  What works?  Does God limit works to only religious things?  That might sound kind of silly to us, since the Church isn’t an institution that wields social influence like it used to.  But it’s not some mysterious, higher act.  The Ten Commandments teach us works that God wants us to do (and not do): Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (#1-3), obey and honor your parents and authorities, protect other’s lives and safety, honor marriage and devote yourself to your spouse, protect people’s property and income, defend reputations, and keep yourself content with what God has given you (#4-10).  There’s enough there to keep someone busy in their daily life without ever having to leave their hometown!  After all, it’s things like this for which the Lord will commend His saints the Last Day: 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:35-36)

And as Christians, God has also given us the work of sharing the Gospel—“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16)  It’s also true that giving to the Church, which is supporting the Gospel ministry, is a work God commands (just don’t elevate so you neglect your daily duties, Mark 7:10-12).  St. Paul teaches, “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14).  Sometimes this also means giving to causes within the Church, like our Macedonian forefathers did, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:3-4).  And even though it’s not flashy, the maintenance of the facilities at your church, or paying for the pastor’s health insurance, is part and parcel of the work God gives His people to do.

Now with an understanding of what’s good and what the works are, let’s see how St. James teaches us.  You see, James is writing to congregations of former Jews, who are well-acquainted with salvation-by-works.  Just picture the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 19 And Jesus said to him, 20 ‘You know the commandments…’ 21 And he said, ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’” (Luke 18:18-21)

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.  Here’s the scene which is painted: The Christians have gathered in the good Name of God.  In walk two men—one who is well-dressed and opulent, and the other a poor man who is in tattered clothing.  They look favorably on the well-dressed man and give up their favorite pew to him, but the poor man is made to sit in the very front row so the pastor can keep an eye on him.  James says this favoritism is “becoming a judge with evil thoughts” because while they are busy schmoozing their well-to-do visitor and thinking of all that they could get done with a large donation, they have neglected the soul whom the world has despised and who is driven to set his hope on God.

James then brings them back to the Commandments: If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.”

Love your neighbor as yourself means just that: Love every neighbor.  When we do that, we are doing well.  Yes! Go for that, and aspire to love your neighbor, no matter who they might be!  But, whenever you and I have failed to do that—and we all do—we are found to be sinners.  Our works are imperfect and inconsistent, so they can’t be what we base our salvation upon.  That’s why the Reformers gave the wise advice, “Good works must be completely excluded from any questions of salvation as well as from the article on our justification before God.” (Formula of Concord (FC), Epitome IV 7)

James continues, 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”  If we are to be judged and not be condemned, it can only be through the Lord’s mercy.  Those saints whose works the Lord commended, who I mentioned earlier (Matt. 25:31-46) were surprised by the commendation because they had not always obeyed the Law. There were people they had failed to feed, clothe, and visit.  But the Lord’s judgment was not based on their perfect righteousness—but His own which He covered them with. They inherited, not earned the Kingdom.  This is being judged under the law of liberty or freedom, and shows how mercy triumphs over judgment.  With a brilliant turn of phrase, those who lived showing no mercy and insisted on all their works—akin to those on the Judge’s left hand—are in turn shown no mercy.

That brings us to the next part, where James has stern words for those who believe they can have faith without it impacting the way they think and live.  This is a needed warning, especially to the Church today.  It was a very timely message to Christians who were recovering from confusion that our works were something that gained God’s favor.  There are many signs that the Church now has swung in the opposite direction, and that’s only further aggravated by the thinking of our day.  In a time when what you identify as can be distinguished from what objective reality says about you, it’s really no surprise that one can identify as a Christian, but live as an atheist.

James takes this disparity head on: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Can that faith save him?  I thought that we are “justified by faith, apart from works” (Rom. 3:28)  Yes, we are, but what kind of faith is important to understand.  We could use the same to describe someone who says, “I love you.”  Those are just words, unless they are accompanied by fitting actions.  You know this if you’ve had a family member say, “I love you” but what they do is yell, hurt, and abandon you.  Even a child can tell that doesn’t add up. 

Now faith is much greater than human love because it is the gift of God, and where it is, it changes the heart.  It awakens new desires, new priorities, new ways to treat the treasures you’ve been given.

So James explains,

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 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”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Living faith gives birth to good works.  ”A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17) If you call yourself a Christian, you should be able to see a new heart.  That’s what we pray for, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)  It’s that new heart and right spirit that desires the works God commands.   So it’s perfectly right to say it is necessary for Christians to do good works.  Necessary in the way that St. Paul so beautifully explains after one of our favorite passages: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)  God has forgiven our trespasses, our disobedience, our deadness in trespasses and sins, in order to rise from death and be His creatures.  As creatures of God listen to the voice of their Creator, that’s the relationship we Christians have to good works.  God commands it, so we do it.  The Lord Himself says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

So when James says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  He’s not just talking about salvation, but that the faith the Christian claims is justified, vindicated, or confirmed by their works.  And this drives each Christian back to the Ten Commandments, to the command to shine as lights, to support the Gospel, to give to the needs of the saints, and to live in mercy.  And that makes each of us ask, “Is this what I’ve been doing? Have I been living in accord with the Lord who bought me with His own blood?  Have I shown mercy and poured myself out for the lost, the poor and hurting?”  Or have you been more interested in making sure you’re comfortable?  This disparity is not good.  It is sinful, and we must put off selfish and atheistic ways.

The Lord is gracious and merciful to forgive you your trespasses.  He does not judge you by your performance, but according to His mercy.  You are His, and an heir of eternal life.  Your sins are forgiven.  Let that new life be what moves you to love God, to love your spouse, family, all your neighbors.  This is the Christian life, not just holding to Jesus in word only, but also in deed.  Therefore, let us pray for the Lord to accomplish this in us with the Offertory (Psalm 51:10-12).  Amen.

The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Readings: Revelation 6:9–11 | Romans 6:1–5 | Mark 6:14–29
Text: Mark 6:14-29

“Martyrs for Marriage”

“Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth.” ~ Psalm 71:4-5 ~

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

John was the forerunner to the Christ.  He was born six months before, and He went before the Lord. He was a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3, citing Isaiah 40:3)  And that he did for all Judea and Jerusalem, who came out to be baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  But the Mightier One came as John said, and has fulfilled all righteousness [Mark 1:4-8, Matt. 3:13-15], and indeed He is the righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption of all who believe [1 Cor. 1:30].

We are those who come after Christ. He tells us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” and “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 8:34; 10:29-30) But like John, we also sometimes must preach, one to another, God’s holy, unchangeable Law and then point repentant sinners to Christ.

John preached against so-called marriage which ran contrary to God’s Law.  No matter what gifts were exchanged, political favors given, or how much Herod and Herodias felt love or lust for each other, it was not really marriage, and John said as much.  Herod’s rank did not factor in.  He was a human being, and humans are subject to the Law given by their Creator.  This Law does not change depending on where you live, how much money you have, or what is socially acceptable, or even if you consider yourself a Christian.

Those who have the Word of God know what marriage is:

18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”…21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18, 21-25)

And like was shared during the Catechism lesson, anything apart from this institution is not God’s intent for marriage.  This holds true, even in the age of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, and pairings of all different kinds.

So, the people who have God’s Word believe that Word, and like John, we speak His truth to others.  And like John, we don’t give preferential treatment with whom we speak this truth, whether it’s to those in authority, or those in our family.  It may be to our children who put off marriage but not sleeping together, or to our parents who want to avoid the burdens of two becoming one financially and legally, or to our peers who want to divorce because they don’t feel fulfilled by their spouse anymore.

And also like John, the one who brings the Word of God may suffer personally for exposing that sin.  It might mean at the very least awkward silences at dinner, alienation, or ridicule.  For Christians in some positions it may mean losing your job, like Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran[1] or having your business boycotted, as Dan Cathy of Chick-Fil-A.  In recent years, it has also meant the presumably-legal attack on Christian businesses, such as Colorado cake artist Jack Phillips,[2] Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman,[3] and New Mexico photographer Elane Huguenin.[4] And this year, speaking this truth resulted in legal charges against the new Finnish Lutheran bishop Juhana Pohjola for a booklet he helped publish in 2004 which addressed legal and psychological effects of legalizing same-sex unions in Finland.[5]

With all that speaking the truth entails—even if it isn’t the shedding of your blood—Christians today are truly martyrs for marriage.  Martyrs are those who witness for God.  And those who are deluded in error want to silence the accusation which comes on our lips.  But it isn’t for any personal pride or battle for conservative values that we speak.  It is God’s love for wayward souls.  God loved Herod Antipas, and Herodias, and Salome her daughter enough to speak to them.[6]  God loves the homosexuals, the transexual, the spouses at odds with each other, the couples who move in together—enough to speak to them, and He is using His people to do that.  In all likelihood, they won’t be coming here to hear this sermon, so it is laid on you to share the warning of the Law, “It is not lawful, and I care about not just your happiness, but your eternal welfare, to tell you this is not good.”

19 And Herodias had a grudge against [John] and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.

And like Herod, the people we speak to will have a moment where they will have to respond to the truth of God’s Law and choose.  Herod’s time of choice came when his pretend wife and her daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. We hope for nothing so extreme, but when the moment of truth comes, it is our prayer that they would repent of their evil ways and turn to Christ, the Savior of sinners. 

Even in John’s death, God’s will was done.  Perhaps as John had been preaching, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire,” he had hoped this would mean immediate, visible victory over those who oppose the coming Messiah.  But the Kingdom can still be resisted, and even if men and women reject its call to repent and believe, that doesn’t mean God’s Word has failed.   Sure, Herodias was pretty smug that she had gotten her way and gotten rid of that trouble-maker.  In the End, that is the Day of Judgement, God has the last word.

As we, the followers of Christ, are martyrs for marriage in our own time, it isn’t on us how people respond to the Word of God.  Instead, our responsibility is to proclaim and uphold the unchanging truth of marriage—to, as St. Paul says, “shine as lights in the world…in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation” and in Hebrews it is written, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Phil. 3:15; Hebrews 13:4).

That brings its own challenges and pains, but amidst that, God’s blessing.  For husbands and wives, it means humbly living out what we heard in the Epistle lesson from last Sunday (Ephesians 5:22-33).  Wives are to submit to their own husbands, as the Church submits to Christ, her head.  Husbands are to love their wives sacrificially as Christ loves the Church, forgiving her flaws, and caring and nurturing them as they would their own bodies.  This is the will of God, even in difficult marriages, 10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10-11) and even if one spouse is not a believer, the life of the Christian is still a witness, as St. Peter says, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.” (1 Pet. 3:1-2)

The burdens Christians face in marriage today are nothing new, but we are sorely tempted by human remedies.  It’s hard to slog through day-to-day, year after year, with your spouse—their sins and your sins colliding.  That’s why affairs look so appealing because you can have the “benefits” supposedly without the trouble.  When we lose our patience, maybe divorce sounds appealing (kind of like suicide sounds like new hope to a depressed person).  The thing that breaks marriages is not the world, but a selfishness that takes root in our hearts, that elevates our felt needs over that of the one whom God has given us as spouse.  God sees through our hardness of heart and excuses.  Infidelity and desertion are grounds for divorce, but through sharing the abundant grace of Christ, forgiveness and restoration may be possible.  When there’s abuse, even a believer should seek safety and protect themselves and their children.  Separation is often necessary (even retraining orders), but the advice of St. Paul is compelling: 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him… 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor. 12-13, 15)  To God, the souls of both people are precious, even if sin has caused evil.

Widows and widowers, the Lord also shines through you as martyrs for marriage.  Bearing the daily loneliness because death has separated you from your spouse, you set your hope on your God, who raised Jesus from the dead.  St. Paul writes, “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day,” and, “I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander.” (1 Timothy 5:5, 14)

Likewise, those who are single support the body of Christ.  St. Paul even commends this estate for those who are able to keep it chastely: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am… 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is.” (1 Cor. 7:8, 26)  You are spared the worldly troubles of marriage, but with the gift God has given you and the added time and material resources, serve Him and serve your married and widowed brothers and sisters.

All of this shows the burden and pain of taking up our cross as martyrs for Christ.  We don’t ask for these crosses to bear, but we will not take the world’s answers—defining marriage according to lusts, casting it off when it doesn’t suit our fancy, and chasing after the carnal appetite rather than using our bodies to serve the Lord who bought us with the price of His blood.  Following Jesus, these pains drive us to the cross where the Lord lifts up and restores our crushed spirit [Psalm 34:18-19].  He calls us to where the Father adopted us in the water of Baptism, to confess our sins and believe the word of Absolution He puts on our pastor’s lips, to eat and drink Jesus’ Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins.

It’s nothing new that people hide from God’s Law, but He has been seeking out sinners since the first disobedience.  He has sought and found you and me, and by His grace may we not fall into temptation, so that we can live godly lives in the presence of God and our neighbors.

In light of the fact that for health concerns, we are refraining from Holy Communion today, let us turn to the order of Individual Confession and Absolution on page 292 in the hymnal.

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





[5] and

[6] We learn of Herodias’ daughter’s name from the 4th century church historian Eusebius.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Isaiah 29:11–19 | Ephesians 5:22–33 | Mark 7:1–13

Text: Mark 7:1-13

In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were the religious guard for the nation of Israel.  After the time of the Exile, and coming out as champions for righteousness after the Maccabean revolt, they held the Scriptures in the highest regard.  However, they also took it upon themselves to “make a fence around the Law” by adding rules and regulations that would curb the possible disobedience of God’s people Israel.  These were recorded in the Mishnah.  They called it “oral Law” and conveniently left out the part that they were not actually given to Moses, and therefore did not have divine authority.

Let’s hear again how Jesus responded to this:

“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

            “ ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me;

in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban” ’ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

The problem wasn’t the traditions themselves.  After all, they encouraged piety and obedience to the Word of God.  The problems were: 1. They made obedience to these traditions binding, as in you would be guilty for not holding to these things; and 2. Some of them were actually in conflict with the Word of God, and they chose to obey the tradition!

This kind of use of binding tradition flourished in the Christian church before the Reformation.  Many such traditions had been handed down, such as the laity only receiving the Body of Christ when taking Communion; requiring celibacy for all priests and nuns; treating the Mass as something that could make peace with God or shorten a dead relative’s sentence in purgatory (another human tradition); or forcing people to go to private confession and list all their sins. (See a list in the Augsburg Confession Articles 22-28)

There are two helpful truths the Lord has for us in this account, which help keep the church on earth from error.  The first is that Christians are not bound to any practice which is not established by “Thus saith the Lord.”

What are the essentials?  I’ll let the Lord Himself tell us: “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20); “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [Christ’s] name to all nations” (Luke 24:47); “Truly, I say to you, whatever you [the Church] bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18); “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.” (John 13:34); “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28)  Preaching the Gospel of Jesus, Baptism and discipleship, Confession, Christian love, the Lord’s Body and Blood—these are foundational.  But how those are carried out has been applied in many different ways.  What’s central to all of it is that the Word of God has the first and last say. 

It’s good for us to be reminded about the right role for human tradition, especially since we are Christians who observe many handed-down traditions: the use of creeds, candles, chanting, hymnals and orders of service, a church calendar, and vestments—just to name some.  Are we wrong for using them?  Are others wrong who do not use them?  We’re quick to say, Of course not!  But then sometimes, we find ourselves looking down on our brothers, and think “if only they really had knowledge, their worship would look like ours.”

Some 50 years after the Reformation began, there were similar disagreements over which and how many of the old traditions to keep.  Our forefathers wrote about this in what’s called the Formula of Concord (something I’ll be using as a preaching series soon).  About human traditions, they wrote, “We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because it has fewer or more external ceremonies not commanded by God, as long as there is mutual agreement in doctrine and in all its articles as well as in the right use of the holy sacraments”  Yes, there are the essentials, which God clearly spells out in His Word.  But anything of human origin is not something to judge each other about.  We can have fruitful discussions about the benefits of traditions or how clearly they magnify the Word of God. But never should traditions take the place of the Word of God and Christ who unites us.

The second lesson is a reminder that it is never right to set aside the Word of God and replace it with human constructions.  Our problem (and I speak collectively as a human race) is that we tend to be fundamentalists.  I mean, tell me what the bare minimum is and that’s what I’ll shoot for.  Just memorize the Six Chief Parts of Luther’s Small Catechism, but nevermind if you ever read the Bible for yourself.  And on that point I think we’ve fallen into error, even as the heirs of the Scripture-alone Reformation.  It’s much more appealing to just go to tradition because that’s what we’ve always done, and we don’t have to think really hard about it.  Confirmation, marriage, funerals, and church membership are all things that have been abused.  We’ve given these rites a life of their own, sometimes apart from or opposed to the Word of God.  Confirmation isn’t commanded by God, but woe to the pastor who doesn’t “graduate” the 13-year-olds of his congregation.  Marriage belongs more to the state than the church, but often the symbolism that was meant to magnify Christ becomes about the poor sinner who is the bride.  Funerals are rarely times to meditate on the preaching of the Law and the joy of Christ’s resurrection.  Instead they are occasions to eulogize the deceased and bask in sentimentality.  Church membership from the early church was about confessing what is taught at this church and received at this altar, but for as long as many of us can remember, many have treated it as membership in a social club with doctrine being a far second.

We need the wisdom of Jesus, and for His Word to set us straight again. From the Old Testament lesson:

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, “He did not make me”; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding”? Is it not yet a very little while until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest? In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.  (Isa. 29:16-19)

The Lord does an amazing thing…for the misguided Pharisees and for Christians of every age, and even us.  He came and did an amazing thing.  What people had wickedly turned upside down, He set right.  To people, deaf and lost in the gloom of their own religion creations, the words of God’s Book are revealed.  He opens the Scriptures, and in them Christ is revealed.

People crave rules to know if they’re on the right road.  But God craves people’s heart.  He doesn’t want our heart far from Him, because if it that’s the case, no matter how many motions we go through, they’re meaningless.  It’s this phony excuse for Christianity that troubles so many who just get fed up with religion.  But the Lord abounds in steadfast love: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11) He is gracious to forgive our errors and guide the people of His Church to act faithfully.

When Christ’s Church clings to Him by faith, then the traditions are not empty or contrary.  They actually exalt Christ—they teach, give voice to our praise, convey the reverence and beauty of the Lord, and guide our children.  Tradition simply means to hand down, and this is the faith which we have received from our forefathers and we want to pass down to our children.  May the Lord help us to always hear Him, repent of our errors, and do all things to glorify Him in our lives, and within the community of His Church. Amen.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Proverbs 9:1–10 & Joshua 24:1-2(a), 14-18 | Ephesians 5:6–21 | John 6:51–69

Text: Ephesians 5:6-21

“Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”
~ John 6:68-69 ~

Yesterday at the men’s breakfast, we learned about the thread in American Christianity of revivalism, which says that the Christian life begins with your personal decision.  And if you listen to the Old Testament lesson and Gospel today with the glasses on of personal decision, that’s certainly what it sounds like Joshua and Peter are saying: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) And, “Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ 68 Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’” (John 6:67-69)

But does one’s eternal destiny really hang on their own choice?  That’s a ton of pressure!  In fact, we need more than our flimsy decision as the foundation for our life today and for eternity.  But, it’s also clear in the verses right before that the things Joshua and Peter said were not just their own personal sentiment: “And [Jesus] said, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.’”  God was at work in and through their pledge of faithfulness to Jesus over the alternatives.  God gave Joshua the conviction to say, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”…even if all the other people should choose to serve manmade gods.  God gave Peter the wisdom to believe, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”…even though such a large number of disciples were ditching Jesus.  Their examples are written down for our learning.  They had a conviction that there was only one God who could save, and only one God worthy of fear, love, and trust.

There’s something to that conviction and power to confess which is behind what St. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them;

There is an opposite to one serving the Lord and these words of eternal life.  It is the world of idolatry and lies, darkness and death.  Without God helping us, it’s not just that a person becomes sort of neutral and unaffiliated.  They actually go the way of the enemies of God, in danger of falling under the wrath of God.  That is to say, if we are left to ourselves, a human being will always drift toward evil.

The empty words Paul warns us about are always there, appealing to that part of us that wants to rise above the place God has placed us.  “You will be like God” it promises, if only you would be free of those shackles of the God of the Bible [Ps. 2:3].  All you need is to unlock the person within, and just imagine what potential is inside you! 

Over the last century, the Church has been engaged in many spiritual battles.  Even while many of us have fond childhood memories of crowded Sunday Schools and packed worship services, there was serious contention between what the Church believes and what the world was trying to sell to Christians—the kind of “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” and an invitation to give up simple faith in God’s Word.  Take for instance, the battle over creation versus evolution.  God’s Word teaches that He made everything by His Word, while the evolution understands everything happening according to mutations and survival of the fittest.  But the Church persevered in battle, insisting that we are creations of God not descendants of apes.  Little by little, even non-Christian scientists have had to admit the faults of their theory. Now, the only reason it persists in schools is because they don’t have a God-free alternative. Even intelligent design suggests there might be a personal force out there.

Another major conflict has been the battle for the Bible itself against Higher Criticism, and that has dragged on for more than a century.  Higher critics are eager to find human fault in the Bible and reduce it to precepts of men and their prejudices. That way, they’re free to rise above those parts of which they disapprove. Yet, because of the conviction which God puts in His people, pastors and professors rose to the occasion and laypeople took up the mantle.  They persevered even when the majority of professors walked out of Concordia Seminary in 1974.  Those who held to the defense of God’s Word actively engaged against world-creep.

They studied and prayed, exhorted and did their best to convince, and their labors bore fruit.  Today, there is a wealth of scholarship and resources available about the evidence for a young earth and the geological processes caused by the Flood.  Today, biblical scholarship is remarkably gifted, with a treasure of in-depth study of biblical manuscripts and critical study of the texts as the Word of God.

The generation now living has its own battle, and it’s one which rears its head within the Church, and that is indifference and resignation.  That’s just your opinion.  Well, whatever works for you.  Listen again to verse 6: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of apathy.”  Apeitheia is translated as disobedience because it pictures someone who is unpersuaded and will not be convinced.   Something is true because it works for me, or I feel it in my heart, and forget the outside, objective truth of a matter. 

And isn’t that what we face today?  COVID has helped people become apathetic about the necessity of coming together to worship.  Couples are apathetic about the institution of marriage.  More Christians, especially youth are apathetic about the biblical view of sexuality as they are force-fed the LGBT agenda.  It seems little to matter what argument you can come up with, because they don’t care.  Their mind is made up already because they’ve decided what’s right for them.  This is also what God calls hardness of heart.

That’s a scary thing to consider, that baptized Christians could be found with hard hearts and suffer the fate of the ungodly!  Lord, have mercy upon us!  We have sinned against Him when we have let this dark world set our priorities and gone after what appeals to our sinful nature and the easy road that is.  We have also seen our family and friends embrace the lies and we’ve comforted ourselves by taking the tack, “Well, I guess that works for them.”

Christ your Lord was not impassive and apathetic.  For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross and rejection you have deserved.  When He saw you in darkness, He had compassion which moved Him to come down and take on flesh.  He persevered in the cause, so that you would have forgiveness, peace with God, and eternal life!  He has made you not a son of disobedience or of apathy, but a child of light.

This is why Paul warns us not to become partners with sons of apathy, with those who have hardened their heart to God’s Word, which He sent to save us.  We continually need the reminder of what we truly are and what is really important:

for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. 13 But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, 14 for anything that becomes visible is light.

Walking in the darkness without God doesn’t lead anywhere good.  Even if you were at one time darkness, now you are light in the Lord.  If at one time you followed your heart and followed the example of unbelievers around you, if you were wise in your own eyes and didn’t want anyone to tell you otherwise—you are now light in the Lord.  Separate your heart from the ways of those in darkness.  You cannot join with them in celebrating the evil they do.  By living as children of light, expose what is darkness in this world—no matter how socially accepted it is, no matter how you may be slandered because you refuse.

Rather, love all people the way that God does.  He doesn’t want even His enemies to stay lost in darkness and error, of apathy and judgment.  So, He shines the light of His Word to you, to them.  Through you, He calls out to them:

“Awake, O sleeper,

and arise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you.”

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

It was significantly less challenging to walk as a Christian in years gone by, when social norms and ethics agreed with the Christian worldview—things like modesty, speech, and standards for decency.  If Paul said the days were evil, we can see how true that is more and more each year.  And Christians living in 21st century America certainly need help knowing what the will of our Lord is.  It’s easy to find out the will of other people—watch a movie, turn on the TV, talk to non-Christian friends.  You will get their view, the things they value and what’s acceptable to them.  But for us, it takes purposeful study to know the will of the Lord.  It takes reading His Word regularly.  It’s nothing elaborate, and we are truly blessed with easy access to God’s holy Word.  Just start reading through the New Testament, the Gospels or the Epistles, or both.  Save Revelation for later, because it will likely cause more confusion than clarity.

There in the Scriptures, you will see what God has created and redeemed you for, and how He is at work to sanctify you as His own child.  Don’t delight in alcohol the way the world does. Rather, be filled with the Holy Spirit, who fills your mouth not with words that need recalling, but with true godly words.  Open your lips with Psalms instead of cursing, sing hymns and spiritual songs instead of whatever drivel pop singers do.  And be filled with thanksgiving instead of fear, anger, or posturing.  Those things are the way of the world and your sinful flesh, which has no patience to wait for God to answer. 

Give thanks to God continually, because He has brought you out of darkness and death to light and life through His Son.  Christians have faced this and worse before, and the Lord has brought them through.  He will preserve us, so let us seek His counsel and pray for His help:

Almighty and most merciful God, in this earthly life we endure sufferings and death before we enter into eternal glory. Grant us grace at all times to subject ourselves to Your holy will and to continue steadfast in the true faith to the end of our lives that we may know the peace and joy of the blessed hope of the resurrection of the dead and of the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.