Last Sunday of the Church Year

Readings: Isaiah 51:4–6 | Jude 20–25 | Mark 13:24–37

Text: Mark 13:14-37

“Watching in between the Shadows of the Cross of the Last Day”

What do we do with this information about the end of the world? We heard our Lord say last week to be on our guard and to expect many and great signs. The world, sinful man, and the devil will all writhe as this age is brought to a close. Yet even from the depths of it, we are to trust that He will send His Holy Spirit with His Gospel whenever we are called to stand before kings and confess him before men—whether kings or even our own family. Now, while poignant moments in the battle between good and evil do happen, often they don’t. Sometimes the great cosmic battles are not on our doorstep. So, what are we to be busy doing day to day?

Well, let’s start with our foundation: 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”  Jesus has ascended into heaven and is coming again to raise the dead, gather His elect, and judge the living and the dead whose kingdom will have no end. This is what we confess in the Nicene Creed, together with the Church of each century that passes before our Lord’s glorious return. This is central to our lives as Christian people in the world: We are a people who are waiting for our Lord to return. As we walk upon this earth, we have hope that the creation will be restored to perfect beauty, our bodies will be restored to their perfect design, and that we will be with the Lord in everlasting peace [Isaiah 11:6-9, 1 Corinthians 15:42-53. 1 Thessalonians 4:17].

We are waiting for this, because we believe that our Jesus, who promised it, is faithful. To the unbeliever, we might look as foolish as Noah building a sea vessel in the middle of land [Genesis 6:11-14], but we are reminded by St. Peter,

“Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation’…But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”            ~ 2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9 ~

The signs which our Lord and Savior has taught us to look for and understand are like a calendar to let us know that His return, like summer, is near. Nobody sits in front of the calendar or a clock with anxiety over what might happen with each passing moment, because nothing would ever get done. The signs of the end are a backdrop, but what is more important is the living out of our faith. Therefore, the Lord says,

32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake. 35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

No one knows, including the Son of Man, who at that time was made lower than the angels [Ps. 8], who although He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant [Phil. 2:6-8]. And now that He is exalted as Lord of all, we are in turn, called to be His servants.

The Lord has brought us into His household—a picture of the Church—and with that, He says, “It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.”

The first thing we notice about His household is that He has been gone a long time (from our perspective). When any other person says they will return, it means they’ll be back within a lifetime. But what has His household been doing in His absence? His servants have held to His Word. In fact, they have preserved His Word for generations to come, in fulfillment of the Psalm of David, “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” (Psalm 22:30-31)  Not everyone is aware of how unique the manuscripts of the Bible are. The Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament have been preserved from the first time they were penned in the 15th century BC, and this accuracy was confirmed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late 1940’s.[1]  The Greek New Testament has greater numbers of surviving documents, closer to the time of original writing, and with greater accuracy than any other ancient document.[2]  The point is that the efforts of faithful scribes and custodians of the sacred texts have preserved the Holy Scriptures, unadulterated for each generation. 

We can also see this take place in our own midst. The 110 years of Bethlehem Lutheran Church have shown the work of His servants. While watching for Jesus’ return, they saw to it that they and their children would be instructed and nurtured in this holy household of God. Mathias and Barbara Gogl, and Pastor Flatmann each did their work. Mr. and Mrs. Hermann Jaekel opened their home for worship, until on May 11, 1911, Bethlehem Lutheran Church was chartered by 9 families who treasured the gifts the Lord had given to them and wanted that to endure.

I’d like to share a conversation I had recently about tithing. Someone was considering giving funds to other charitable causes instead of to Bethlehem. I reminded them that this congregation is able to continue doing the work of Word and Sacrament because of the contributions of her members. It’s true that we are not mandated to give a certain amount or percentage; you are saved by grace on account of Christ, not by putting something in the offering plate. We give out of gratefulness for that grace, and with a heart that wants with the Psalmist to “proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”

However, it is also true that if some do not contribute or give their leftovers, this puts a greater burden—and it would be an unfair burden—on those who do. The costs remain the same, the work is just as much, but if we say to ourselves, “I don’t need to because someone else will take care of it,” we are deluding ourselves and putting the stability of the congregation at unnecessary risk.

Today, I brought up the example of the founding of our congregation to show that this applies not just to financial contributions, but also to everything that pertains to the life of our congregation—those who show mercy; those who pray; who teach our children; who support the congregation’s song; who care for the grounds, building, and altar; those who handle the administration; those who can’t physical do but give what they can; those who see things that need to be taken care of and just do it; and who beautify this house dedicated to God and His priceless gifts of Word and Sacrament.

Our congregation is just a part of the Lord’s household, but a picture of it we can see and touch. He has brought us together in this place, and He “puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.”  The pastors who serve are the doorkeepers, who continually watch for His return and keep the faithful founded on our faith in Christ’s return and His Kingdom which has no end. Each of His servants does have work in the Lord’s household. It isn’t all the same, not all of it can be seen, some might be small and some great. What makes it beautiful is that it is dedicated to the Lord, in eager watchfulness for His return.

How do we find out what the Lord’s work is for us? Remembering that it is His household, and we are His servants, we each listen to His Word and ask Him in prayer. We ought not neglect these, because this is how He directs us and keeps us away from simply following our own imagination. When we take our eyes off the Lord of the household, that’s what gives rise to the excuses, “someone else will do it,” “I’m too busy,” “why bother, nothing will change anyway,”  and whatever you might tell yourself.

 “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15) The Master of the house sees that we have all been slack in one way or another, and we all must confess, “We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10, NKJV) 

And He continues to be gracious to us, to all who call on Him with a contrite heart! His Church, founded on the rock that He is the Christ, the Savior of sinners, has endured through the centuries, so that the Gospel may be preached to our gathering (small as we may be by human measure): Your sins are forgiven before God in heaven. Go in peace; your faith has saved you. [Luke 7:47-50]

It’s out of that joy of God’s grace that the Church serves the Lord faithfully. The Lord puts this heavenly treasure in jars of clay, and it’s through folks just like us that He hallows His Name, causes His Kingdom to come, and answers our prayer that His will be done here on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s precisely in this that the Church will endure, preserved by the grace of God and the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. May He fill us with zeal for His Word and opportunity to do His work. And finally, may the lovingkindness which God has shown us in Christ kindle in our hearts a love for Him and His Church until the Master releases us from our service. Then, we will confess with Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32, Nunc Dimittis LSB pp. 199-200) Amen.

[1] See

[2] See

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year

Readings: Daniel 12:1–3 | Hebrews 10:11–25 | Mark 13:1–13

Text: Mark 13:1-13

About 30 years ago, the pop group R.E.M. popularized the phrase, “It’s the end of the world as we know it; and I feel fine.”  At the time, they were reacting to political movements and the end of the Cold War.  From their slant, it could be seen as the end of the world.  In the world after Covid, many have thought that this is much closer to the end than we ever have been before.  But a little perspective from history can mediate our excitement.

At the time of Jesus’ ministry, many Jews were convinced that the end was at hand.  Popular literature included the Book of Enoch, an apocalyptic book that reflected the reaction to increasing hostility with the Gentile nations and anticipation for the Messiah to come.  So, that’s the world the disciples are living in.  That’s why they react in the way they do to Jesus’ words:

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”  And as he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Sensationalism sells.  The old adage from journalism is true: “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Tell people something exciting and new, and they’ll be dying to hear more.  As we might have noticed in recent events, sensationalism and fear are a great method of social control.  People get others to do what they want by employing fear.

The antidote to this fear is truth.  But who are you going to turn to?  We are surrounded by so many human opinions, all liable to err.  That’s why Jesus’ disciples asked Him for an authoritative answer on this big topic.  If we had been there, we would have asked too.  Good thing the Holy Spirit caused His answer to be recorded for us to read and hear, too! 

We can feel it in our bones that things are unraveling. From these momentous upheavals in human history and natural disasters, all people sense foreboding things about the future.  But the big unknown is When?  How will we know when it’s about to happen?

Jesus’ response doesn’t satisfy our longing.  He says, “See that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. This must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. These are but the beginning of the birth pains. But be on your guard.”

Perhaps it’s just a secret waiting to be revealed.  That’s the idea behind every false Christ and false prophet who has said the Bible isn’t enough, or the Bible needs to be decoded for underlying messages only known by a select few.

Perhaps this time is the moment!  Whether Romans desecrating the Temple at Jerusalem, or plagues, or Constantinople falling to the Turks (1453), or religious wars of the 17th century, or mass persecution of Christians in the 20th and 21st centuries—the end has not come yet.  But every generation believes that this is the worse that it has ever gotten.  Perhaps they are right, and perhaps we are right.  But the end is not yet.

The fear of the end of the world has led people astray countless times! So, why is it that someone would lead others astray?  The likes of Charles Taze Russell and the Watchtower Society, to Jim Jones and David Koresh, to the bold claims of the charismatic New Apostolic Reformation.  They lead people astray because they themselves are led astray.  Having come unhinged from the Word which Jesus clearly explains, they instead react to the circumstances and believe and tell others that this is really the moment!

But Jesus doesn’t let us go down the road of panic and sensationalism.  It’s actually quite simple: The Church waits for His glorious return, as He promises.  She endures persecution and hardship, bearing the cross after the model of Christ her Savior.  The end comes when the end comes.  Our Lutheran Confessions explain,

1 It is also taught among us that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the last day for judgment and will raise up all the dead, 2 to give eternal life and everlasting joy to believers and the elect 3 but to condemn ungodly men and the devil to hell and eternal punishment.

4 Rejected, therefore, are the Anabaptists who teach that the devil and condemned men will not suffer eternal pain and torment. 5 Rejected, too, are certain Jewish opinions which are even now making an appearance and which teach that, before the resurrection of the dead, saints and godly men will possess a worldly kingdom and annihilate all the godless. (Augsburg Confession, Article XVII)

But, messages to the contrary of this simple explanation appeal to something in us which is also looking for early release, some exception to the rule, or something to make this life of tribulation easier.

The Lord’s answer does not satisfy our sensationalistic craving: See that you are not led astray…be on your guard.  Acknowledge that the signs are there for sure.  But don’t try to predict when the end is.  They’re there to affirm that Jesus truly is Lord, truly is the once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that He is most definitely coming again as He promised.  It’s not essential that we have the timetable, but it is essential that we believe His Word and await our Savior’s return in glory.  It is vital that we are not led astray by spiritual charlatans.  But instead wait; be on your guard; endure suffering until the Lord exalts you.

The Lord knows that we can be sucked in by these things, which is why He continues:

For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. 10 And the gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 And when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 And brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death. 13 And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Even when the ramifications of the end become personal—putting you in front of those in high positions or touching even your own earthly family—know that the Lord will neither abandon you, nor the Word He puts on your lips.

We theorized earlier about what motivates those who lead others astray in these last days.  People lead others astray, but they themselves are led astray by the devil, “for the devil has come down … in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Rev. 12:12)  The devil and the ungodly are moved by hatred and fear.  The devil truly hates God, with a seething rage, and it vexes him to think that God would have bested him by taking the place of the guilty.  Fear is at work in the desire to hide our works from God (John 3) or that there’s no way our Creator would ever forgive what we’ve done.

But opposed to what the devil, and darkened human minds are looking for, what is the Lord working for His elect in these times?  It’s not deceit, but salvation.  Your Lord is leading you on the true way which leads to salvation and eternal life. He is telling you the truth, even if every other man were a liar.  And that’s reassuring in the din of fearmongering that the End Times creates when people try to face it with their own strength and merits.

“But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  This phrase right here drives Christ’s followers to their knees, because we can see the impact of this deceit in those closest to us.  Christian parents cry heartfelt pleas for their children and grandchildren.  I beg God that my own children, who hear the Word of God at home and who join the assembled believers now, would continue in this faith after it’s no longer our place to tell them what to do.  Christian spouses long for their husbands or wives who are indifferent or hostile toward the Lord and His Church.  As the saints gathered here today, we ache for those we know who have been missing from these pews, because earthly cares have drawn them away, or they have a personal beef with the man who fills the pastoral office.  We want them to endure to the end and be saved.

That’s where our Lord, who hears our cries, reassures us in these evil days.  It’s not just up to us, and it’s not a matter of survival of the fittest.  It’s His grace which He gives to sinners, and His strength which He gives us in our weakness that will make sure we endure.  And it’s His incredible work in people’s hearts that we hope in as we pray for ourselves, our families, and our absent brothers and sisters.

Our Lord is with us no matter what the years before His return will bring.  Uncertainty and foreboding are not our lot, but watchfulness in His Word and guarding against the spiritual dangers which surround us.  That’s not to say it will be easy or quick, but we will see that the Lord has fulfilled and is fulfilling His promises: “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” andI have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Matt. 28:20; John 16:33)

 Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen!

All Saints Sunday

Readings: Revelations 7:2-17 | 1 John 3:1–3 | Matthew 5:1–12

Text: 1 John 3:1-3

St. Paul writes to us, “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-7)  While we are at home in the body means this life we know each day.  This is all we’ve known thus far. 

What did you think when you heard the Epistle reading? 

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

If you’re like me, you might experience times when you doubt that this is true.  See what kind of love?  What we see with our eyes, what we feel with our hearts, and our experience “at home in the body” often contradicts this. 

What we see is a world which stubbornly tries to push God further and further away.  People don’t want the creation given to them, but seek to enhance and change it to suit their own imagination.  It may be as small as trying to skirt the natural consequences for your actions, or as large as redefining your anatomy to fit the gender of your choosing.

What we see among the Church, supposedly the people of God isn’t encouraging either.  From a confession like ours, where the Word of God and pure teaching is so vital, we see the wider Church riddled with enticing heresies and deceitful practices.  Christians can be at loggerheads over clear passages of Scripture because they refuse to let go of their own darkened reason. Besides all that, false religions that teach people to trust in their own works gain the most ground. The Mormons have 9.4 million members in America[1] and there are an estimated 4 million Muslims.[2] Just for comparison, the Missouri Synod is the largest historic, orthodox church body with about 2 million members.[3]

We see disease and death having their fill, seemingly unchecked.  Why is death allowed to steal children from their parents, spouses from each other, and freak illnesses cause debilitating, permanent damage?  And to be frank, why God work miracles, sometimes, but other times, it seems like He’s on vacation?

We also see people betraying one another, vows being broken, and foolish choices.  That’s disappointing, and that hurts, but if that weren’t enough, we sometimes (or often) make stupid decisions, act in godless ways, and all the while try to leave God out of a part of our lives.

The things our eyes see are enough to weigh us down.  It’s akin to how watching too much of the news can get you depressed and cynical.  Too much of this life can make us overwhelmed and want to escape the pain, the shame, the helplessness, the sadness.  But that’s why Christians since the late 300’s have had a single festival dedicated to lifting our eyes beyond this vale of tears.[4]  Originally done in the time of many martyrdoms, All Saints Day is a time to remind the children of God who they are and drown out the loud noise of this life to tell them what their lasting hope is.

What we see with our eyes is not where we are to find hope and good courage.  That’s what we lament and pray for God to hasten our salvation.  We pray every day, “Come, Lord Jesus!” “Deliver us from evil!” “Hosanna! Save us, we pray, O Lord!” (Rev. 22:20; Matt. 6:13; Ps. 118:25)  And while we pray for our deliverance, our God and Savior does give us the hope and good courage to walk by faith, even while we wait for our Lord to appear. 

It’s in the Lord’s Word that we find our identity and assurance that God calls us His children.  The Apostle John wrote his letters latest of all the New Testament writings (AD 85-95), and throughout the Holy Spirit fills his epistles with assurance:

“We are writing these things so that your joy may be complete… (1:4)

I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for His Name’s sake… (2:11)

I write to you, children, because you know the Father… (2:18)

Little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming… (2:28)

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God… (3:9-10)

Little children, you are from God and have overcome [the false prophets and the spirit of the antichrist], for He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” (4:17)

God gives you objective confirmation of how He adopted you.  It’s one thing if we try to bear witness about ourselves because of how we feel or what we can do to prove that we are children of God.  Ultimately, however, that’s shaky ground.  So God gives His children His unbiased and true testimony.  His Word declares what is true no matter what century it is, no matter the political situation, and regardless of any trait or merit you have.

Here’s an excellent example of why it’s so important to hold up Holy Baptism as God’s work, not ours.  Of course, we hold Baptism as important because God’s Word presents it—how it builds upon the covenant idea of circumcision (Gen. 17:5-11; Col. 2:11-12), how it is the way that disciples are made of all nations and children of God are born (Matt. 28:19; John 3:3-8), and how it is a “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).  Take all that together, and you find that in Baptism, God is giving us a new identity, an wholly eternal ground of being.

You may think of your identity as what your name is, who your family is, traits about you.  You may also think of your identity as your reputation as a citizen, a worker, or even as a consumer (what “identity theft” threatens).  But in Holy Baptism, God gave you—and you still have it—a new Name. It’s His own Name, so now you belong to Him and pray not just “O Almighty God,” but “Our Father who art in heaven…” In spite of earthly differences like gender, nationality, or status, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…[and] you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:27-28)  And in Holy Baptism, God has also given you a truly impeccable reputation (impeccable meaning “without sin”)—for Christ, “having cleansed [His Church] by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:26-27)

This is meant to ever more confirm the truth that all who believe in Jesus Christ are beloved children of God.  And if children, then we can be assured of God’s divine fatherly care.  Are His children in danger or need?  God the Father will come to their defense.  Are they discouraged and nearing despair?  He will again show His steadfast love to them, as He promises at the end of Psalm 91: “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Ps. 91:14-16)  Are His children forsaken by men and alone?  He will comfort them in the communion of saints, where He gives us “brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30).

In an era when everything is questioned, as to what’s essential and what can be changed or done new ways, this affirms why it is so important for the children of God to gather together often.  We need those reminders and assurances of who we are.  When the world and the devil, and when our own consciences cry out against us, we need our gracious and mighty God to speak to us, and say, “But 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)  By this gathering, our heavenly Father assures us that we are indeed His children, we are not alone, and we are certainly not forsaken!

And there’s yet another truth that is revealed by His Word, not by our eyes or experience: Our Lord Jesus has defeated death.  He is broken its power and shares His victory with us.  The oft-quoted and ever true Word tells us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” And, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26)  This is more than a nice sentiment, possibly even a lie we tell ourselves and others to soften the harsh blow of death.  This is what God’s children believe, because we know our God cannot and would not lie to us.  So, along with everything else that comes from being “God’s children now,” there’s also this: The dead in Christ are not lost to us.  As God’s Word is true, they live.  Yes, their eyes have closed, their hearts have stopped beating, we cannot have a conversation with them, and all the days we spent together are resigned to our memories.  But they are not lost.  Very little separates us from them because we are all in Christ.  Even though their soul and bodies have been wrenched apart, and our eyes cannot see them, when we are with the Lord, we are also with them.  Together, we await the consummation of the age, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  But do not be dismayed that they are far away, because our one Lord has brought us back together, anticipating the Great Day when our eyes will see what our God has told us.

And so, when we come before the Lord’s altar, we confidently pray, “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God. In the communion of all Your saints gathered into the one body of Your Son, You have surrounded us with so great a cloud of witnesses that we, encouraged by their faith and strengthened by their fellowship, may run with perseverance the race that is set before us and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising You…” (Proper Preface for All Saints Day)

Be of good cheer, brothers and sisters in the Lord!  Trust in the Lord’s Word because He will always be true.  The Father, through His Son has adopted you as His very own, and poured out on you His Holy Spirit to keep you in this eternal hope.  Thanks be to God! Amen.





The Festival of the Reformation

Confirmation of David Philip Langley

Readings: Revelation 14:6–7 | Romans 3:19–28 | John 8:31-36

Text: John 8:31-36

Once, I heard someone tell me about how they were waiting for a special revelation from the Lord about a health concern.  They felt certain that that God would give them a miraculous healing.  In reflecting on that, I thought, “Well, that could happen, but what if it doesn’t?”  Where is the assurance in setting your heart on something which God hasn’t promised?  What must it be like to be in the dark, where God’s work is a hidden and uncertain thing, and strain your eyes looking for Him in places where He hasn’t promised to be?

On the other hand, many people don’t expect anything clear from God.  They live their lives never sure if God forgives them.  Maybe they have the experience of “feeling forgiven” or hoping they’re forgiven.  It may get you by while things are going well, but as soon as death is near, this house of cards falls down.

Certainty from God is one of the main points of the Reformation.  God wants us to know Him, believe in His Son, and stand firm as His children.  He wants us to be sure and confident in our fellowship with Him.

He wants us to know Him.

Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (31-32).  This is really a summary of what God has been doing throughout generations.  God makes Himself known in His Word.  The evangelist John earlier says, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18).  That’s an incredible statement because it means that God has only revealed Himself one way.  And if we know that one Way, we know the Truth, and we have eternal Life in Him [John 14:6].

God demonstrated repeatedly that He wants Himself to be known through the Word.  Think of Pentecost.  On that day, people of all different languages were given understanding of God’s Word by the Spirit.  They heard the mighty deeds of God, each in their own language because God was making Himself known to them [Acts 2:1-11].  Think also of the New Testament itself.  The inspired writers all wrote in koine—common—Greek.  This was the universal language of the day, which could be understood from Rome to India.  This was because God was revealing His light to the nations.

This truth is also clear in the worship of God’s people.  Among the Jewish Christians, they worshiped in their native Aramaic.  From their worship, we still know the words, Maránathá, Come, Lord Jesus” [1 Cor. 16:22] and Ephphatha! from Jesus healing the deaf and mute man [Mk. 7:34].  The Greek Christians worshiped and sang, “Kyrie Eleison, Lord, have mercy!”  When Latin became predominant, the Church worshiped and sang in Latin. We still honor this history by using the historic titles of the , which we give honor to in calling the parts of the service Gloria in Excelsis, Sanctus, Nunc Dimittis, etc..  In all of these cases, the Church heard and confessed their faith as God made Himself known to them in their own language.

Ephphatha: Be Opened!

            And God does this in every place and every language because He wants us to know Him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent [John 17:3].  He wants us to have certainty about Him because He is our God and we our His creatures whom He has redeemed from sin, death, and Satan.  He wants us to know what He expects of us, how we have fallen short, and how He has forgiven our trespasses as a gift through the blood of Christ.  Free from any doubts, God wants us to live as His beloved children.  He is the God of the Word, and all who trust in His Word are saved.

Yet, the devil and the world always stand against this certainty and clarity.  Where God has spoken clearly and concretely, the devil is still up to the old trick, “Did God really say?”  And our sinful hearts and darkened understanding just eat it up!  In these days of blurred lines, people have gotten so excited about new understandings.  Biblical authorship is questioned and clear teaching about right and wrong is muddied.  What Scripture condemns as immorality and abomination, people call love.  Worshipping with unbelievers after a tragedy is held up as virtuous charity.  God calls their worship devotion to demons and diabolical lies, but people say it’s just a matter of flawed opinion.

This spirit the Missouri Synod in the form of something called Gospel Reductionism, which states that faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins is all that really matters.  All other points of doctrine, and how you read the Bible doesn’t really matter, so long as you still agree with the statement, “Jesus is Lord.”  Then they accuse anyone who insists on the whole truth of God’s Word, of being Pharisaical.  But what it really does is take away the clarity of Scripture and not let God say what He means to say.  We are not to teach Him; He is to teach us.  We are the ones in darkness, and we need His Light to shine on us (Isa. 9:2, 1 Pet. 2:9).

95 Theses

To bring the gift of clarity, one gift of the Reformation was God’s Word, translated into the language of the people.  Others like John Wycliffe had attempted this in the century before Martin Luther, but had been dismissed as an enemy of the Church.  The Holy Word of God was to stay enshrined in the 4th century Latin of Jerome, and only learned men were given to read it for themselves.  The clarity of God’s Word was taken from the ears of the unlearned.  The worship of the Church was greatly revered, not because of what was being clearly portrayed, but because of the mystery.  The term “hocus pocus” comes from this time, when the Words of Institution from Holy Communion were muttered in Latin and misunderstood, “Hoc est corpus meum/This is My Body.”

And what happens when people no longer learn or understand the faith?  They revert back to their own darkened understanding of God.  They believe that God is just, so you better be a good person or you’re going to hell.  Or, a bigger problem in our own day, they believe that God is love, so He welcomes all even if they persist in sin.  They accept ideas about God like doing penance, or that He gives health, wealth, and happiness to those who really believe in Him.  Without understanding Sunday worship and without Scripture to teach them, the children of light are led back into darkness [Eph. 5:8].

Through this lack of knowledge of God and His Son, people were sold into slavery once again.  Without knowing Jesus as their Savior from sin and the devil, they were left up to their own weak devices.  Jesus’ diagnosis is bleak: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever” (34-35).  This is my fear for those who are not regularly in contact with God’s Word.  The world is acquainted with guilt, but redemption is up to you.  The unnatural, unhuman pressure that we are under shows itself in breaking many people.  People are guilty for not achieving enough, knowing enough, having enough money to keep up.  We are supposed to be self-sufficient, yet depend on the people that we’re not supposed to get too close to because we could spread illness.  An over-reaching government and medical complex promise to solve all humanity’s problems, but it’s clear that institutions fall flat in this regard, and souls are lonely and despairing.

It may not be slavery as we picture it from the history of America, but it is a bondage to these cruel masters, with no genuine escape.  If there’s no heaven or hell, no God to help, no wonder so many turn to suicide.  If the Gospel is not clear, and all we can do is look to ourselves for rescue, what a wretched state!

But the Apostle to the Hebrews says there is a redeemer who saves us from this bondage to sin and death.  It doesn’t hang on a person’s ability to save him or herself.  The Apostle says, “[Christ] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Heb. 2:14-15)

God causes this darkness to be lifted once again.  During the Reformation, the Word of God returned to the Western Church, and by it, the Son set people free.  The knowledge of God and His Christ was broadcast to the multitudes.  This happened first of all by translating the Scriptures into the hearer’s language.  Martin Luther, William Tyndale, and others were God’s instruments in this kind of Pentecost.  At last people would again hear the mighty works of God in their own tongue!

The second way that the darkness was lifted was by reforming the role of clergy.  Since the Mass had become nothing more than a performance, the priests had become lazy and useless to their Lord and Master [2 Tim. 2:21].  Many didn’t even know the words they were saying at Mass, but the Reformation sought to return them to study of the Scriptures and of their holy calling.  This certainly did not happen overnight, but it took many years to rouse “lazy bellies” as Luther called them (Large Catechism, Preface 1)  But once roused, they taught the true faith as Christ had called the Apostles to do before them so that God’s people would not be kicked around as slaves.

The third way that the Reformation—and specifically the Lutheran Reformation—lifted the darkness was by teaching the faith through music.  Luther, trained as a monk, had been among those who sang in place of the congregation.  He, along with other musician/theologians, wrote hymns for the people—hymns that were at last in their language!  So the churches were filled not only with Scriptures that the people understood and priests who taught them the faith clearly, but also the congregation was no longer silent because they were allowed once again to sing the Lord’s praise!

In 1524, the first Lutheran hymnal was published.  It was affectionately called, Achtliederbuch, the Eight Hymn Book.  Its full title described it in typical German fashion: “Some Christian Hymns, Canticles, and Psalms Made According to the Pure Word of God, From Holy Scripture by Several Very Learned Men, to Sing in Church as it is in Part Already Practiced in Wittenberg.”  Each of these songs was written not only to teach Christians the true faith, but they were also to give voice to the gladness which comes from being freed by Christ.  Music still has this power to carry the words, and how great it was that the words of these hymns, learned by heart, carried the faithful teaching of Law and Gospel to all who sung and heard.   

God’s work through the Lutheran reformers brought the multitudes that saving knowledge of God’s Word.  Where they had been enslaved for generations through ignorance of the Word, the promise of Christ came to them again: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (31-32).  And that same saving knowledge has come to you in our day.  You have the sacred Word of God, translated into modern English.  We have capable pastors who are thoroughly trained on the foundation of the prophets and apostles [Eph. 2:20].  We have the rich tradition of the Church’s song, not just from the days of the Reformation, but from all time.  One promotion on Issues, Etc. points out that in our hymnal, we sing with the Church of the 2nd century (Phos Hilaron), 4th century (Savior of the Nations Come), 7th century (Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain), 12th century (O Come, O Come, Immanuel), and so on.  We chant the Psalms with the sons of Israel, and rejoice even more because we know the Christ.   And we can sing joyfully because we are sure of what God’s Word has declared to us.

We join our voices with Zachariah, Simeon, and Mary.  We all together sing of our God and Savior who brought us out of darkness into his marvelous light [1 Pe. 2:10], and who has freed us from the evil of sin, death, and the devil.

But there’s another side of freedom that we must beware of.  That is, we take freedom for granted.  For example, take the English Bible.  In America, we have it so abundantly and so readily available that it’s a wonder more people don’t read and believe what it says!  Everyone who brushes off the Word of God says with the Jews, “We…have never been enslaved to anyone.  How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” (v. 33).  They’re unaware of the slavery that comes from neglecting God’s Word.  If they knew what hell they unwittingly wander into, they would buy out every Bible in print.  But that’s the flip side of freedom isn’t it?  The generations since the Reformation have benefited from the bloody labors of the Reformers who were willing to die for their confession of the Gospel.  Now people take the English Bible for granted, using it as a doorstop.  Every year lately, fewer pastors train for the ministry and seminaries struggle to stay open.  Many would sooner choose a pastor based on charisma and butts-in-pews than solid theological training.  And finally, music—that integral and biblically-mandated (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:18-19) part of Christian worship—has been unappreciated.  If everyone sung the hymns, even the 30-40 in worship here would be sharing together in praising their Lord and Savior.  But when we neglect these gifts, we are selling ourselves back into slavery.  This is why St. Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).

Stand firm, dear Christians!  You have the precious Word of God before you, right in your hands!  God gives Himself to you, that you may know Him!  Believe what His Holy Spirit says to you through the Word, in your own language.  Believe what the pastor says to you, because it is the Word of Christ: “I forgive you all of your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”; “Take; eat, this is My Body given for you”; “Take; drink, this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And then lift up your voice in praise.  Sing with joy to the Lord your God, the Lord, your Savior.  The Lord has opened your lips, so that your mouth declares His praise [Ps. 51:15].  And don’t let anyone silence you—not mandates against congregational singing, not an overamplified band, not anything.  God puts His praise in the mouths, and even the stones would cry out if we would be silent [Luke 19:37-40].

Through lack of knowledge, God’s people are enslaved, but the Son of God has set you free by making His Truth known to you.  You have a certainty from God, as He declares to you: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27) and we believe what Christ promises us: “the son remains in the house forever” (Jn. 8:35).  Amen.

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Jeremiah 31:7–9 | Hebrews 7:23–28 | Mark 10:46-52

Text: Mark 10:46-52

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  The Gospel last week ended with this ominous statement from Jesus.  While thinking about the rich young man who refused to benefit the poor with his wealth, we might hear it similarly to Mary’s inspired words, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:53)  That is, there is going to be a great reversal for those who are comfortable now with their prosperity, and those who have forsaken material status will be honored in the sight of God.  That’s certainly true.

It also paves the way for what happens in the Gospel lesson for today.  As Jesus, His disciples, and a great crowd are leaving Jericho, who should join in the throng, but a blind beggar.  In terms of society, this man has a lot working against him.  He’s blind, which means he either can’t or isn’t expected to do the things seeing people do.  This is a time long before the efforts of Louis Braille and Helen Keller, where it was more common to disregard the disabled.

He’s also a beggar, meaning all his daily necessities depend on others’ charity.  If he has a good day, he eats; but if it’s a bad day or there’s widespread famine, he’s even more out of luck.  His father, Timaeus, is mentioned, but perhaps he isn’t able to care for his blind son.  For this reason, he is probably malnourished and sickly.  His name is Bartimaeus, and he is certainly thought of as one of the last.

So, when he learns that Jesus is passing by, and he starts hollering, people tell him to cut it out.  To them, not only is he a visual reminder of poverty, wretchedness, and misfortune that might befall them, now he’s making a racket.  It’s one thing if he just sits there quietly, like the panhandlers of today, where you don’t want to make eye contact because you’re half ashamed you aren’t helping them and half are afraid of taking on their problems.  But now this guy is making quite a noise after Jesus.  No, buddy, get in the back of the line where you belong.  The Good Teacher is just for those who are a little bit messed up, for those who just need some life coaching to get them back on track.  He’s not for hopeless cases like you.

Except that the Good Teacher just finished saying in the verse before: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  He didn’t come for the capable, for the rich in things, for those who get by on their own.  He came for those in need, and blind Bartimaeus is the epitome of one for whom the Kingdom of God has come.

As a beggar, he is before men what we all are before God.  We have no resources of our own, no merits to claim.  The image of children which Jesus used recently tells of our inability to earn God’s favor, but the image of a beggar adds that we are also filthy because “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6), and “by nature are children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:4).  In light of God’s righteous judgement, we deserve whatever bad may happen to us.  It is only the “goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” (Titus 3:4-5) that sees us in our condition, has compassion on us, and saves us because that’s what He has decided to do.  We are the man left for dead, on whom the Samaritan has mercy. (Luke 10:36)

Also being blind, Bartimaeus can only learn of Jesus by what he hears about Him.  In that way, he is a great model for Christians in generations to come because “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).   His great outburst is not because of free bread or a miracle worker has come to town.  He cries out after Jesus because the word of Him has reached him, so that Bartimaeus can recognize Jesus for who He actually is.

Listen to His confession: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Despite the earthly factors that are against him—his blindness, his condition on the edge of survival—he makes a rich theological statement in his cry.  “Jesus” – He is calling out after the Man who is walking by on two feet, who is journeying from Jericho to Jerusalem, who stops to eat, grows sleepy and rests, has a mother and brothers and sisters.  “Son of David” – Not simply any other man, but the One promised to King David by Nathan the prophet: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Samuel 7:12-14)  The Son of David can only be He who fits the bill, of whom David said, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” (Psalm 110:1), and this is He who fulfills all the gracious and eternal promises from the Lord. He is the Son of God, “one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (Micah 5:2)

And then to cap it all off, lowly Bartimaeus says, “Have mercy on me.”  This is what a beggar and a sinner prays, but one with whom God has brought into His gracious covenant.  Kyrie, eleison! is what the faithful have prayed, even before this day when it was directed toward Jesus.  From Psalm 31:9 [Septuagint[1] Psalm 30:10]:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;

My eye wastes away with grief,

Yes, my soul and my body! (NKJV)

Or from Psalm 27:7 [Septuagint Psalm 26:7], which expands on the prayer,

O Lord, hear when I cry with my voice!

Have mercy upon me, and hearken to me!

So blind, begging, outcast Bartimaeus makes a marvelous confession of faith: In this Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, he is seeking the mercy which only the Almighty can show to poor, miserable beggars. 

48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Like the children whom the disciples tried to prevent from being brought to Jesus, they tried to dissuade Bartimaeus, but he would not be hindered because faith revealed to him just Whom he was running after.

49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”

His faith is not misplaced.  Joyfully responding to the Lord’s call, Bartimaeus leaps up and Jesus gives him an open audience.  Here in what he asks, we also see what he believes about Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David.  He believes that He is able to open the eyes of the blind—something which another blind man in John 9 points out, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:32-33).

This is a huge request of Jesus, borne out a belief in Who He is.  And this teaches us about coming to Jesus with our prayers.  From His Word, we have come to know and believe who our God and Savior is.  In a nutshell, we confess it in the Creed: Our God is the God who made heaven and earth; the Son of God who conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary—fully God and fully man; and the Holy Spirit who gives us life and faith and resurrection from the dead.

Because of who our Lord and God is, we come to Him with big requests.  But what does it look like if we don’t?  Listen to this illustration from the Large Catechism:

Imagine a very rich and mighty emperor who bade a poor beggar to ask for whatever he might desire and was prepared to give great and princely gifts, and the fool asked only for a dish of beggar’s broth. He would rightly be considered a rogue and a scoundrel who had made a mockery of his imperial majesty’s command and was unworthy to come into his presence. Just so, it is a great reproach and dishonor to God if we, to whom he offers and pledges so many inexpressible blessings, despise them or lack confidence that we shall receive them and scarcely venture to ask for a morsel of bread.

58 The fault lies wholly in that shameful unbelief which does not look to God even for enough to satisfy the belly, let alone expect, without doubting, eternal blessings from God. Therefore we must strengthen ourselves against unbelief and let the kingdom of God be the first thing for which we pray. Then, surely, we shall have all the other things in abundance, as Christ teaches, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be yours as well.” For how could God allow us to suffer want in temporal things when he promises that which is eternal and imperishable?” (Large Catechism, III 57-58)

Behold, this is the God we stand before!  This is why we pray in the liturgy, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”  We are not praying alone, but with the faithful of every age and tongue, with our brethren throughout the world today.

We are not throwing our pennies in a wishing well, but bringing our needs—both great and small—before the King of the Universe.  He has invited and commanded us to pray, and He has promised to hear and answer.  “Everyone who calls upon the Name of the Lord will be saved.” (Joel 2:32)  Not simply saved as in “go to heaven” but saved as having our prayers answered by our gracious and loving Master, who says to Bartimaeus and to us, “Your faith has saved you.[2] Go your way.”

So don’t be shy, don’t be unbelieving, but pray to the Lord in simple faith. It doesn’t have to be elaborate words, but in a trust that God is who He is and He is able to do all things.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

[1] The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which was spread through the Greco-Roman empire after 132 BC. It was the most familiar translation to Jews, and is quoted by Jesus and His apostles several times (e.g. Acts 2:25-28).

[2] The Greek word translated “made you well” is σῴζω which means save, deliver.

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”