Last Sunday of the Church Year (Isaiah 65:17-25 )

foolish virgins knocking at door

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 24, 2019

Text: Isaiah 65:17-25

When Jesus came the first time, He gave the world a preview of the new heavens and the new earth.  God walked with His people, speaking with them face-to-face. He healed their diseases, cured their uncleanness, and raised their dead.  Parents received back their children, Mary and Martha received back their deceased brother healthy again. All of these miracles were not just for the private benefit of those individuals; they were recorded for us, so that we would know that God is actively at work restoring what sin and death destroyed in this world.

These wonderful signs even continued into the ministry of the apostles, as God used these powerful signs to verify their authority as representatives of the risen Christ.  But it wasn’t long that the stream of miracles dried up. God had given them as a signal that He had broken into His creation to restore it to what He wants it to be—and will be forever.

As I mentioned on All Saints Sunday, the Divine Service is something from which we have to depart.  The time of fulfillment and nearness of the Kingdom gives way to waiting again. Yet, just because we are made does not mean God has forgotten us.  His promises are just as sure as they ever have been, from the minute sin and death came into this world, to the final trumpet.

So God has spoken to you and me by the prophet Isaiah today to affirm His promise to you, of redeeming and restoring creation:

17  “For behold, I create new heavens 

and a new earth, 

and the former things shall not be remembered 

or come into mind. 

18  But be glad and rejoice forever 

in that which I create; 

for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, 

and her people to be a gladness. 

19  I will rejoice in Jerusalem 

and be glad in my people; 

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping 

and the cry of distress. 

The Creator of all is making all things new in Creation. He is restoring His creation to its proper glory, including you and I.  This transformation will be so momentous that how things are now will fade to black. Imagine that! The things which haunt our dreams and keep us up at night, which choke up our throats and make our hearts sink…instead of being heavy on our minds, will be outweighed by the glory of eternity!

St. Paul describes it this way in Romans 8, 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”  And when we consider our present sufferings and longings, it seems almost too good to be true to hope that those burdens will be no more.  But the Holy Spirit convinces us to believe it, even though we have not seen it yet, because we know God does not lie.

The Day is coming when the Lord Jesus will restore to us what sin and death has robbed us of:

19  I will rejoice in Jerusalem 

and be glad in my people; 

no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping 

and the cry of distress. 

20  No more shall there be in it 

an infant who lives but a few days, 

or an old man who does not fill out his days, 

for the young man shall die a hundred years old, 

and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. 

Mothers who have lost your children, He will wipe every tear you have shed.  Widows, who have lost your life-long companions, your aching will be stilled.  God is going to destroy the last enemy—death itself (1 Cor. 15:26). Death and Hades must give up the dead in them (Rev. 20:13).  There will be no more funerals, no more grieving having to give up the ones we hold dear. The tragic and vain course of this world will be no more!

21  They shall build houses and inhabit them; 

they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 

22  They shall not build and another inhabit; 

they shall not plant and another eat; 

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, 

and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 

23  They shall not labor in vain 

or bear children for calamity, 

for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord

and their descendants with them. 

One of the frustrations of this life is the ultimate futility of our life’s work.  As much as we try to hold onto a legacy, it can easily be forgotten, absorbed into the Medicaid coffers, or wasted by whoever comes after us.  As Solomon laments, 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (Eccl. 2:18-19)  The vanity comes when we try to hold onto it in this present world.  Instead, we’re made to wait until our Lord’s return and the resurrection, because only then will the work of our hands endure.  But it won’t be for our own pride, to have buildings and cities named after ourselves, but for the glory of God who removes the curse of death.  Humanity will endure forever.

24  Before they call I will answer; 

while they are yet speaking I will hear. 

25  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; 

the lion shall eat straw like the ox, 

and dust shall be the serpent’s food. 

They shall not hurt or destroy 

in all my holy mountain,” 

says the Lord

This passage speaks to something that is already true today—that God hears and answers before we answer.  We recognize this in part, and there are moments when we can connect our prayers to God’s answer. But often our faith flags and the next time the day of trouble comes, we worry that something will prevent God from hearing and answering.

The full realization of this intimate conversation will be when calamity is removed from us.  The danger of creation will be removed. The evil of this world will be cast out, as the Lord says “[angels] will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace.” (Matt. 13:41-42)

Whatever place mosquitos, black widows, ticks, or infectious diseases play in this world, they will not be dangerous in the world to come.  With the curse of sin and death removed, there will be nothing harmful left. Can you imagine the wolf and lamb grazing together? The lion eating straw, but this is what God ultimately, eternally, intended for his creatures.  

Remember the One who promises these things to you.  It’s not a man, who could fail you. It’s the same God who fulfills all that He promises, from the beginning and wondrously brings these things to pass in spite of what our eyes see today, what our minds are capable of conceiving, and what we could achieve by our own ability.  The seal placed on this is “Thus says the Lord.”

And as the wise virgins, who heed the bridegroom’s call [Matt. 25:1-13], may we ever say, “Yes, yes, it shall be so. Amen.” (SC Lord’s Prayer, conclusion)

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:31-46)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

This is one of the most uncomfortable passages of Scripture to read, because it leaves us with questions of, have I been good enough to stand on the Lord’s right hand? What does it take to be counted with the righteous?

I could give you the Lutheran pat answer that ultimately we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and that’s what qualifies the righteous to stand on His right.  Amen. End of story, go in peace.

But that would be whitewashing the Lord’s message is here.  Another related passage that makes us uncomfortable is these words from James 2: 

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:20-24)

To rightly understand salvation by grace through faith, we need to know that Jesus is more than the salvation version of the Staples “Easy” button—all you have to do is believe in Jesus and you’re set!  Or put another way, when he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” that wasn’t the end of the story.

What makes us uncomfortable about this passage in the Gospel is that we live in light of the final judgment—“He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”  And what’s uncomfortable and hard is that believing in Jesus is not a once-and-done, instant trip to eternal life.  Like Abraham, that faith is put to the proof.

In Romans 10:10, St. Paul says, “With the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  Faith operates in the heart, but it actually does change the heart it occupies.  Each week, we say—God forbid that it just be out of routine—“I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities…and I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.” (LSB 184) However, if we say that and there is no movement in the heart or intent to lead a God-pleasing life, that confession is nothing but straw—straw that will be tested by the fires of Judgement Day.

In Luke 3, when the crowds are answering God’s call through John the Baptist, he told them, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…and the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” (3:8, 10-11) Genuine repentance is manifested a changed heart, and an effort to change behavior.

In Ezekiel 36, the Lord says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (36:26-27)  This is what it looks like when God works faith in you.

Faith gives you a new heart.  Of course, it removes the love of sinning, intentionally doing those things which anger God.  But faith also includes the work of renewal.

When Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”  These were all things which God created humanity to be.  They’re an echo of the good He originally made us to be, but there is so much evidence of how our hearts have changed.  It’s sin that has hardened our hearts—toward God and toward each other. We go from being people who have compassion to finding excuses why it’s not our problem or why they deserve the hard lot they have.

As I left California behind, I remember listening to the Stevie Ray Vaughan song, “Crossfire,” in which he sings, “Day by day, night after night; Blinded by the neon light/ Hurry here, hustlin’ there/ No one’s got the time to spare/ Money’s tight, nothin’ free/ Won’t somebody come and rescue me?”  At the time, I thought this coldness was just a symptom of overcrowding or politics, and that moving to a smaller city in Washington would be the answer. Of course we recognize that this is not the kind of society we want to live in, and yet we find ourselves being a part of that problem every day.  That’s because it’s a symptom of the hardness of heart that sin has brought about in us.

But through the “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” in Holy Baptism (Titus 3:5), God not only gives the gift of trust in Christ, but also a heart being renewed to be like our Creator once more (Col. 3:10).  With that renewed heart, we are able to look at those around us less as inconveniences to be avoided, but as people made in the image of God and loved by Him!

One last thing about this regenerated heart, lest we should think Christianity is not much more than a moral system like Buddhism: Notice what the works were: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothed the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.  These people who God turns our heart toward aren’t just the easy cases—the family and friends you get along with, those who are self-sufficient and fun to hang out with. These are people in need, and God will give you a heart for them. Faith can only be said to be His work, because who in their right mind would care about hungry, thirsty, naked strangers, who are sick and imprisoned?  Oh, that’s right, our Lord does. In the same way He cared about us when we were strangers and even enemies of God.

So, yes, it is true that the righteous receive an inheritance prepared from before the foundation of the world—“saved by grace through faith, not a result of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)—a true, living, and active faith, and you can know that you have this faith through the sorrow over your sins and your trust that only Christ—not anything you do—can make you acceptable in God’s sight.  It is that genuine faith in which God’s mighty hand can be seen not only by Him, and also by our fellow man in need. As we live in the light of this Judgement, let your hearts not be fearful about the how much, because Christ has done it all to earn our blessed peace.  As He calls you His own here on earth, He gives you a heart to show His mercy. May God’s gracious kingdom come among us, and bring to His right hand, as the psalmist declares:

      You make known to me the path of life; 

      in your presence there is fullness of joy; 

      at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)

Amen. Go in peace.

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Exodus 32:1-20)

Lucas Cranach - The Law and the Gospel

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 10, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

The congregation got impatient when Moses was gone for 40 days and nights.  We are coming on 2000 years since our Lord’s ascension. It doesn’t take long to find some of the foolish things people have done hoping for or trying to hasten the Lord’s return.  

We’re more impatient than we’ve ever been as a race.  Two or one-day shipping, broadband Internet, text messaging, Skype calls to the International Space Station—it’s amazing what can be done and how small it’s made the world.  But the side effect is that we get impatient even waiting at a 40-second-long traffic light or balk when our first-world comforts are out-of-stock.

But this isn’t a new problem.  Impatience is borne in the heart, and it was just as much a problem for people thousands of years ago.  The lesson is the Lord says, “Wait on Me” and we do stupid stuff thinking we can help God along. We get impatient and want our own solutions to help the time pass.  In that delusion, it’s easy enough to sweep God’s will under the rug and turn “the Bible says” into a stamp of approval on whatever we want to do.

The people pressured Aaron into doing something which made them feel better about the wait.  Make us gods like the rest of the nations. Come on, Aaron, that’s what will let people know we’re really the chosen people of Abraham.  And the people we all behind this plan, so much so that they let go of the wealth which hung around their necks and on their ears (which God had given them as a gift in Egypt) and poured money into this project.

There’s much to learn from the parallels between this story of Moses going up the mountain and leaving Aaron to lead the people.  Several times, the Lord compares the Kingdom of God to a man going away and returning after a long time. He leaves stewards in charge who are to keep things running.

I mentioned earlier that it’s been far more than 40 days, nearly 2,000 years actually.  But where the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. When our Lord gives us the account of Moses on Sinai and tells us parables about a long journey, He’s helping us to understand our own place as the people of God.

Forty days after His resurrection (hey, there’s a significant number), Jesus ascended—not just a mountain—but into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Before He left, He gave instructions, appointed stewards of the mysteries, and promised, “Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

It is our place, as the children of God on earth, to live by faith in and through faith in His Word.  There’s a distinction: 

  • We live by faith in His Word, meaning we hold to it and trust it as the living Word of God which He inspired to be written for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16).  Whenever the children of God add to or subtract from this Holy Word, they fall into grave errors. If we add to it and try to bolster it with talk of history, church councils, and precedent, we minimize the sufficiency of the Word alone to sustain the Church until Christ’s return.  If we take away from it, to gloss over the parts which offend people who are proud of their self-made religion, then we let people go merrily to perdition. We live by faith in His Word.
  • We also live through faith in His Word.  As cute as the acronym is, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” the Bible is not like other instruction books, like assembling a chair from Ikea.  One of the ways sin has infected our hearts is with the idea that we can do something that can get us in good with God. We see God’s command to jump (so-to-speak) and we say, “How high?”  When in fact our legs are broken and our muscles have atrophied on account of sin. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.” And after all that we can do, the judgment is still “By works of the law shall no human being be justified in His sight. For through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)  Instead, our life is given to us as complete gift.  “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17) The reason we are able to sit here today having peace with God is because of the life of faith that continually comes from God.

And this is possible because Jesus far exceeds what Moses could ever do. 

Moses went up on the mountain and was no longer with the people.  As a man, he could only be in one place at a time, and God had called up to Sinai to receive the Law.  Jesus, on the other hand, ascends into heaven, and by personal union of God and Man, He can truly say that He is with us until His return (Eph. 4:9).  He is with us through His Word being spoken, through forgiveness being shared (“where two or three are gathered, there I am among them” Matt. 18:20), in His very Body and Blood given for us to eat and drink, and with His Spirit who comforts and preserves us.

Like Moses, our Lord appoints men to keep watch over His congregation.  It’s true they can err and fall. But that’s no reason to write off all clergy as if they were a manmade after-thought.  Think of it this way: The Lord has also preserved faithful preachers and members of His flock through the millennia. You don’t have to look anywhere further than where the pure Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered according to the Lord’s command.  Where you see that, you can be confident that you have found His chosen people.

There are times when His people make a mess of His Church on earth and profane His holy Name.  Sometimes we may wish that God would open the earth or strike down all false teachers. He doesn’t squelch Korah’s rebellion, or kill Uzzah for mishandling the holy things (Numbers 16, 2 Samuel 6:5-9).  Instead of destroying heretics, what He does is pray for them, that they turn from their error and save both themselves and whoever listens to them. And this is what we should to, because it could just as quickly be one of us who is deluded and has a corrupt view of the Word.

The day is coming when our Jesus will come down out of heaven.  He will not come down with tablets of stone that will be smashed in anger.  That’s because all the wrath against our disobedience has already been poured out on Calvary.  He—the Son of God Himself—was forsaken, not you or me (Matt. 27:46). He will come again to gather the faithful—those who waited for Him and live in and through His Word.  

All Saints Sunday (Revelation 7:9-14)

The Adoration of the Lamb

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

All Saints Sunday + November 3, 2019

Text: Revelation 7:9-14

This scene of the faithful at rest is given to John in the middle of great judgments at the end of the age.  After the sixth of seven seals, the proud of the earth who have rejected the Gospel vainly call for the mountains to hide them from Judgment.  What follows is further judgment against God’s enemies. But chapter 7 stands apart as interlude—both a heavenly picture of the Church on earth arrayed for battle (Rev. 7:1-8), and a vision of what our Lord has promised his disciples when He says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…”

This time of year, sneak previews abound.  Retailers like drop hints about what will be on sale over the holidays (like Costco sending out a flier detailing their sales week by week).  It creates anticipation and the promise—however remote—of good things on the horizon.

Hope is why the Lord gave the Revelation to St. John.  It is an inspiration and encouragement, and yes, it’s meant to evoke excitement for the end of our lives and the end of the this present world.  Sure, it has a lot of scary scenes and hideous depictions of God’s enemies, but it doesn’t really tell us anything which the Gospels haven’t already covered.  It’s as simple as we confessed in the Creed—“He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come in glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”

Now, if we can get manipulated by advertisers to get excited about worldly goods, think about how much greater Revelation is for our spirits:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Before His Ascension, our Lord commanded that His Church make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them.  This is a picture of the sum total of all the Church’s evangelistic ministry. It’s the fruition of the seed of the Word being planted, and while we often see the part that gets snatched by the devil, falls away in persecution, and gets choked by the cares of life—the Gospel is truly effective at doing what God sends it for.  The Holy Spirit continues to “call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the whole Christian Church…and keep it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

In this, we ought to be encouraged that God’s purpose is fulfilled—that He would bring the blessing of salvation to all the families of the earth who receive Him.  There’s much to do in reaching out with God’s Word in our various callings—pastors must preach faithfully, parents must catechize their children, Christian citizens must exercise their conscience as a witness against ungodliness around them, we must be ready to share this hope we have within us when friends and neighbors ask us.  Yet, the Church feebly struggles. Earlier in Revelation 7, we’re pictured as this great army in companies of 12,000, but we march together like kindergartners. Tugging, lagging behind, hitting each other, wandering, and throwing tantrums. But the miracle in this—the grace to us—is that God’s Kingdom still comes in spite of that.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

As the Lord does in other prophetic writings, He asks a question to get us thinking before He explains.  This great countless multitude, who is gathered around the Throne of God, and singing full-voice to God their Savior—who are they and where did they come from?  Like cliffhanger in a TV show that flashes forward after a plane crash, you’re left wondering how did things go from the world as we know it, to seeing this countless throng of the saved?

Some of it is known to us, how the Lord saves through increasing persecution, hearts growing cold, wars and rumors of war, famines, earthquakes.  Some of it will be worse still, as Jesus warns, “Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” (Matt. 24:21-22)  But the blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might belong to God because He gathered His elect, He kept them in body and soul to join in this heavenly court!  Neither by our willpower, nor our ingenuity, nor as our proof of our dedication do we arrive safely across the Jordan.  Neither by how many good works we’ve done, nor by how much we’ve studied, nor our offering dollars do we have the privilege to stand among this throng.  All glory belongs to God alone, and to the Lamb who adorns us with all the righteousness needed to be welcome in God’s house and recipients of this blessed rest!

Now in words that can only be appreciated after we have felt the sharp pangs of our earthly pilgrimage, does the elder speak these consoling verses:

“Therefore they are before the throne of God, 

and serve him day and night in his temple; 

and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 

 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; 

the sun shall not strike them, 

nor any scorching heat. 

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, 

and he will guide them to springs of living water, 

and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Paradise at last restored, but this time better.  This time we will be innocent, after we have known guilt.  We will serve Him, after we have wandered and denied Him. We will be sheltered after having been exposed.  We will be satisfied, after we have hungered and thirsted. And then, we will not be naked in this new creation, because we will be clothed by God after we had been covered with shame.  But the Day is coming when all those things will pass away, and this is what we will enjoy forever.

What we need now is that foretaste, that preview of the good things to come.  That’s what we have in the Divine Service and in His Word. It’s our sanctuary from this wearisome life.  When we are here, first thing our Lord assures us of His peace by forgiving our sins. He puts His Word on our lips, and then feeds us with His Word and we respond with singing.  After the sermon, we acknowledge our present life, giving of the things of this life to carry out God’s work on earth and bringing him our cares and needs in prayer. Then, before dismissing us to those burdens, our Lord invites us to table with Him, with angels and archangels, and all the saints at rest.

An ancient name for the Divine Service is the “Mass” (although this name is usually only used by Roman Catholics now).  It comes from the Latin, missa, which means dismissal, named for the prayer at the conclusion of the service. The point is this is a service which comes to an end, one which we are dismissed in peace.  But, we look forward to that Day we will no longer have to leave the Lord’s immediate presence. In the meantime, having had this foretaste, we are prepared by the Lord for all the tribulations of this present age, with the steadfastness we need to endure to the end. 

This is the hope toward which we press in Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36)

Albrecht Durer - The Crucifixion (1498)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Reformation Sunday + October 27, 2019

Text: John 8:31-36

We’re accustomed to evaluating things on the basis of what we can see.  If you go to the dentist, how good or bad your teeth are can be observed.  If you’re buying a house, the home inspector looks for red flags of what could be a serious issue.

But how can you tell if someone is a slave?  You’d look for a master, a contract establishing their right of control, some kind of power relationship of obedience that they’re locked into.  What if you can’t see these things with your eyes or feel them with your heart…or what if you can sense them, but you don’t know what to call it?  That’s the way it is with slavery to sin. There are no signs that are obvious to us, except the one that comes too late to do anything about, which is death.

Jesus speaks to those who believed in Him, but they are still very weak in that faith.  Jesus offers liberty, and they say they’re already free. On what basis do they say that?  Because they don’t have a master to face with threats and whips? Are they free in that they decide where to go and what to do?  What they don’t yet understand is that every person is born a slave with sin and the devil as their masters. How can you know this?  There may be signs here and there—a bad behavior you can’t kick, periods of doubt, various ways you’ve hurt others. But only a holy God can truly expose your slavery, and He does that by His Word.

The Reformation was a glorious event in Church history because, together with the Printing Press, it meant that more people than ever before would be able to read God’s Word for themselves.  Sometimes this is pictured as a great “liberation” from the hierarchy and control of the Roman church. But in fact, it meant greater liberation from sin and the devil’s absolute power over humanity.  Romans 5:14 says, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam.” This reign of death was disrupted because God gave Moses the Law, the holy Word which exposes and identifies the marks of sin’s bondage.  Death reigns through the ignorance of God’s Word, and reigns unchallenged, so long as we believe the scientists today who tell us life is no more than chance chemical reactions.

When the whole Word of God was put into the hands of many, it had a liberating effect.  It exposed the ungodliness of paying indulgences for forgiveness, refusing people the Blood of Christ in Communion, praying to the saints, forbidding marriage to priests, requiring penitents to list every sin in confession, and compelling people to fast on certain days. The Reformers studied the Scriptures and found that in fact they preached against putting our trust in man’s works or teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!”

It’s easier to put your finger on what bondage is once you’re freed from it.  Take, for instance, when the children of Israel were brought through the Red Sea.  They had languished under heavy burdens laid on them by cruel Pharaoh, and now they were freed—The Song of Moses declares, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exodus 15:1)

Yet, three days into their wilderness journey, those same people started complaining: “The people grumbled against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’” (Ex. 17:24)…[and about a month and a half later:] “The whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’” (Ex. 17:2-3) Even though they had been loosed from Pharaoh’s yoke, they still found themselves slaves. Not slaves to a master they could point at and blame, but slaves to their own passions within them.  They truly were slaves to sin.

Likewise, Christians freed from the yoke of the papacy found that they were still slaves.  Certainly, they were free from the fear of purgatory and mandates about fast days and confession. Yet, having the Scriptures in our own hands exposes much sin in each of us.  We justify ourselves against the Law, and sometimes claim that’s just man’s opinion. Now that we’re not compelled by force and guilt-trips to go to Mass, our laziness and neglect of our spiritual wellbeing is evident.  “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”  We were freed from heavy manmade burdens, and found that we were still yoked to Master Sin.  

“But if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” We’ve often heard this in our country: ‘Freedom is not free.’ How much truer this is of freeing slaves to sin.  The Son of God did not set you free by merely speaking a royal decree. He bought your freedom—“The Son of Man came to serve and give His life as a ransom for the many.” (Matt. 20:28)  He is both God’s Passover lamb who shed His blood to buy our release, and the firstborn son who died that sons of Israel might live (Ex. 12:29—13:1).  Yet all this, He did in love toward you, when you were still slaves, still His enemies (Rom. 5:10).

But that freedom is not as the world views and abuses freedom—using it as an excuse to do whatever you want.   The freedom which the Son gives you will cost you your life. Yes, your life: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  The Son hasn’t just freed you and let you loose; He has freed you from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

In Romans 6, St. Paul writes, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (Rom. 6:15-18)

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  This is the freedom of a Christian.  You are not freed to serve yourself, but to serve God and your neighbor.  But if, in this life, we find ourselves still slaves of sin, we should not despair as though this Word of God were not true.  “You will be truly free,” the Lord says.  As with all the words of Christ about us, it’s a statement that is true, and effective through faith.

“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.”  The slave He is talking about here is your sinful flesh, the heart from which proceeds all manner of evil.  It does not remain forever, dear Christian. You are free from its power over you in death. “The son remains forever”“For if we have been united with him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” (Rom. 6:5)

But even while you are harassed by our former masters, you have freedom from them.  Your Lord and Master 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.”  The Word of God definitely had the power to expose slavery, but even more it displays Christ’s glorious saving work.  In that, it has the power to set you free. “Abide in My Word,” your Lord says.  Immerse yourself in it, as David says in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law [instruction] of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” (Ps. 1:1-2)  If you desire this freedom, hold this word sacred, and gladly hear it and learn it.  It is your very life, for everything else will not remain forever.

Thank God that we live in the wake of the Reformation because the Word of God is in our hands, in plain English.  Avail yourself of it, and by God’s power, pray that you may overcome the slothfulness of your flesh!

We are at the same time son and sinner, saint and sinner.  But we live as those who are free from sin, if not always in fact, certainly in faith.  May the Son, who through His almighty Word freed you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, keep you as His disciples today and to eternity. Amen!

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 22:23-33, 34-46)

18th Sunday after Trinity

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity + October 20, 2019

Text: Matthew 22:(23-33) 34-46

The Pharisees knew who they were, and they knew who the God of Israel was.  They knew His Word thoroughly, and unlike those fools who don’t even believe in angels, the afterlife, or the resurrection (the Sadducees), they held steadfast to God’s Word.  They kept all the commandments, plus the “oral Torah”—the traditions of the elders—which were a hedge lest anyone transgress the Law and they lose the land again.

They studied the commandments, but more importantly, they obeyed the commandments.  Chief among them was the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (Deut. 6:4-6)  And how shall they be on your heart?  By repetition, by “binding them as a sign on your hand…as frontlets between your eyes…by writing them on the doorposts of your house and your gates.” (Deut. 6:7-8)  

So, when these Pharisees hear that Jesus has silenced the flimsy and proud Sadducees, they are ready to test this Rabbi’s mettle.  Following the tradition of the respected rabbis of the past, they asked Rabbi Yeshua ben-Yosef [Jesus, son of Joseph] a question: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”  They ask this, fully expecting the answer quoted above.

But this Rabbi adds more: “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [Lev. 19:18] On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”  And that’s quite a statement to make!  Certainly others like Hillel the Elder had recognized this second great commandment before, when he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

What this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees boils down to is a difference in how you approach the Word of God.  You see, there’s a difference between seeing the Bible as something to be studied and mastered, and seeing it as the living and active Word of God.

The Pharisees were a group that had learned to approach the Word of God under a microscope.  Its instructions were largely prescriptive, and anyone who followed its rules would be blessed, while the disobedient would be cursed.

What this attitude also allows is for one to come at the Word as a judge.  Another display of this came immediately before today’s appointed reading. It would be helpful to follow along in the pew Bible, page 828:

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.” 

The Sadducees approach Scripture with preconceived truths.  For them, there are no angels, there is no afterlife, and there is no resurrection.  Now, with these parameters firmly in place, they go to Scripture and try to make it fit their views.

This Rabbi—as they supposed—responds to the Sadducees, 

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. 

He combats all of their high-handed ideas and wraps up a rebuttal into a Scripturally-authoritative package: resurrection, angels, God of the living after death.

Now, back to the Pharisees, Jesus’ response to them is a question of His own:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question,  saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.”  He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word…

For them, all the Bible’s contents fit into neat little dogmatic packages.  Everything had a reasonable explanation, and one or two opinions about what might be less clear.  But when Jesus asks them about the very prominent Psalm 110, written by King David, they are forced to admit defeat.  They don’t have an answer for this part of Scripture. They must admit that they are not the judges of Scripture, but God will be their judge, and not on the basis of how many commandments they can enumerate and obey, but on whether the Word of God has been kept with their hearts.

The Sadducees and Pharisees represent problems that are still widespread today.  Like the Sadducees, some approach the Bible as skeptics with their mind already made up.  They find so-called controversial verses or look for seeming inconsistencies. They are people who have already made up their minds about the origin of the universe, what God is like, what ought to be priorities in life, whether it’s okay to live together apart from marriage or whether divorce is sinful.  They come to the Bible with reservation (if they read it at all), and subscribe to it “in so far as” it agrees with their own worldview.

The Pharisees represent those who strive to study the Bible and master it, to memorize numerous passages and never miss an opportunity to grow in knowledge.  And as we sit here with Bibles in our laps, we think this is the preferable option. If knowing the Bible is wrong, I don’t wanna be right. But the desire for knowledge and learning is not the problem; it’s the motive.  It’s what Jesus said in John 5:39-40: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.”  God’s Word is not something that we master and become experts on; it’s God acting upon us and declaring to us who He is and recreating who we are in Christ.

The approaches to Scripture illustrated by the Pharisees and Sadducees—the experts and the skeptics—is really one of terrible insecurity.  The experts are afraid of losing the footing they have by information about God. If they get swept away by this living God, they will then be the ones studied by Him, and they will be at His mercy.  The skeptics are insecure because their conscience accuses them. They know that they think and live at odds with God’s revealed will, so they put up the mask of the unconvinced cynic. Both are terribly afraid that if they let God have an ounce of power over them, He might actually change who they are.  He would make them into something of His choosing, not theirs.

What is this which God would change us into?  He tells us what His intentions are: He is powerful, even able to raise the dead, for “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”  He is the Son of David, and yet David’s Lord, who will trample His enemies.  He is the God who desires us to know Him in both His power and the holy Scriptures.

And if we will abandon our weak attempts to know or repel God, we will at last discover that He is not to be discovered and studied by us.  He seeks us out. He gives His commandments, that we might first know how far we have fallen short (Rom. 3:23). But the Son of David also became a priest after the order of Melchizedek, to offer what no human being could—a life without deceit or any stain of sin.  It is only when we hang on this Christ, that we can sincerely (and in a God-pleasing way) love God with all of our heart, soul, and might; and our neighbor as ourselves.

God grant that we continue to be astonished at His teaching, for He has the words which are able to save, to count us with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not dead, but living forever more. Amen.

LWML Sunday

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

LWML Sunday (Proper 22C) – October 13, 2019

Text: Luke 17:1-10

Today is LWML Sunday. The theme of the day is from the Gospel reading, where Jesus says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It is that gift of faith in people’s hearts which is so precious in the Lord’s sight.  Today, we recognize and celebrate the support which dedicated women from all across the country give to spreading the Gospel, so that He, through the means of His Word and Sacraments, increase faith in people’s hearts and bring unworthy servants into His household.

To understand what Jesus is saying about faith and mustard seeds, we’re going to have to dig into the Greek a bit.  Our Lord uses some pretty powerful language to make His message clear to us.

First, He says some things which sound familiar and pretty basic:

And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

You know what the most difficult part of living on earth is?  People.  You’ve often heard it said and probably thought it yourself, This world would be great if it weren’t for all the people.  Well, the same goes for the Church too.  Being in the Church and following Jesus would be great, if it weren’t for all the other people!  Think about it: The thing that is our biggest source of frustration is the people we live with (sometimes even other Christians!).  It’s hard not to take the perspective of one popular song: “I’ve got one less problem without you!”

Jesus says something shocking though, not just that “temptations are sure to come”, but “It is impossible that temptations should not come.”  It can’t be any other way, which means that all the things we hate—the deadbeats who lure our children away from what they know is right, the abuses and injustices we suffer—are unavoidable.  It also means those people you get annoyed by the most, the people who tick you off, those who you loathe to speak their name because of the memories it brings up…Yeah, God put them in your life.  It can’t be any other way.

Now that’s no free ride for the creeps, because God pronounces “Woe!” to them who cause one of these little ones to stumble, who scandalize faith.  But don’t underestimate the almighty power of God to bring good even out of the evil of others. (Genesis 50:20)

But the Lord doesn’t support us just denouncing the world and bemoaning how corrupt it is.  He says, “Pay attention to yourselves!”  He is speaking to each of us personally, not just that guy we really think needs to hear it.  Listen up, dear Christian, He is talking to you and applying this to you as you follow Him.

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

This series of statements use a special construction in Greek called a conditional statement.  The gloss is, “Whenever this happens, this is what the result will be.”  So it reads not “if” but “When your brother sins, rebuke him”  It’s not a matter of if he sins, because he will.  (The same message is being preached to him about you, by the way.)  So, whenever your fellow Christian sins, you are to rebuke him.  This is unpopular, especially because we would rather make people happy and like us than have to be the bearer of “negativity.”  But, this isn’t an optional thing for the Christian.  It’s a basic part of being part of God’s family, that we actually speak to our brother or sister about their sin.  It’s not judgmental; it’s loving:  “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6:1-2).

“Pay attention to yourselves!”  When you rebuke your brother for his sins, you don’t do it from a high horse. You do it, realizing you are just as dirty. He may have this sin that needs to be called out, but you have your own. The motivation for rebuking another Christian has to be because God loves them, and you love them enough to tell them when they are mixed up with sin.

The next part is also crucial: “If he repents, forgive him.”  Without Peter even having to ask (as he does in Matthew 18:21) Jesus drives home how important this is, saying, “If he sins against you seven times in a single day [emphasizing the Greek], and turns to you seven times saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”  If you claim the name of Christ, this is absolutely how you are to conduct yourself.  Anything less profanes God’s Name—even the name of Jesus which means “He saves His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)  The Christian Church is a community of repentance and forgiveness.

That’s not the way we like to operate, though.  It’s much more satisfying to see people have some sort of consequences.  We figure they need something to teach them a lesson and keep them from doing it again.  But doling out consequences is not a vocation that God gives us with respect to our brother or sister (unless we hold a civil office).  Truth be told, we often find ourselves avoiding the person who has sinned against us, rather than to do what the Lord commands here.

That’s when the disciples, like us, realize how spiritually bankrupt we’ve been, and cry out, “Increase our faith!” or literally “Add to our faith!”  That’s when Jesus throws them another humbling reply: “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” He says this because it’s not that things would magically be better if we just tipped the scales on the “right amount” of faith.  He points to the mustard seed, and says if you had even the tiniest speck of faith, you could command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea.

Here is another place, where the Greek tells us more: This is what’s called a contrary-to-fact statement, like, “If you had blue hair, you would look like Marge Simpson.”  But you don’t have blue hair, so neither is the other part true.  “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed (which you don’t), you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted.’…”  But the point is you don’t.

Boy, what a downer, Lord.  I thought you wanted everyone to have greater, bigger, stronger faith?  I mean, your prophet, Habakkuk even said, “The righteous shall live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4)  It sounds pretty important.  But Jesus isn’t diminishing our faith; He’s diminishing us.  He’s humbling us, so that we realize this immense work of living reconciled with God and those around us isn’t our work.  Having faith is being humbled to realize all that dwells within us is desires to see the wrongdoer have their comeuppance and for God to vindicate our worthy case.  But those are not God’s ways, because they are higher than our ways and thoughts (Isa. 55:9).

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”

The final humbling statement comes with the illustration of a house servant.  This doesn’t make much sense to us today, as I don’t know any of us rich enough to have domestic servants.  But we can still understand it from the employer—employee relationship.  If you have an employee, would thank him for doing what was already his job?  I’m so glad you came in on time today, and answered the phone! Splendid! I think we’ll make you employee of the month! Well, what this means is that it is our basic duty as Christians to rebuke our fellow sinners with God’s Word, and when they recognize their sin, forgive them with God’s forgiveness.

This is the work which the LWML supports.  But it’s not just about the money they raise for missions; it’s about the way these women dedicate their lives to living out their faith.  But that is really nothing over the top: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”  All Christians, from the least to the greatest, are called to this amazing-and-humanly-impossible work of steadfast reconciliation.  That is our witness to those who don’t know Christ—not just that we get walked all over by people who never understand, but that our lives witness to the grace of God in Christ to fellow broken people who need God’s grace.

But it’s not about us; it’s God’s work through us.  So, when we find ourselves loving those who have wronged us, thanks be to God!  This is what our Lord has commanded us: Love one another; forgive your enemies (Matt. 5:46-48, Luke 6:27-31).  This is what faith does: it puts God’s love into us so that we love as He does.

So today is really about Jesus who has loved us while we were still sinners, whose love sends His Holy Spirit to add to our faith, to put into our cold hearts a divine love which witnesses that in Christ, there is peace with God and peace with our fellow man.  And we thank God for the support of the LWML both in sharing and living this Gospel.  To God alone be the glory, forever and ever! Amen.

Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (Rev. 12:7-12)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Feast of St. Michael and All Angels – September 29, 2019

Text: Revelation 12:7-12

We often thank God for the dedicated service of the members of the armed forces.  We thank Him for giving these men and women such dedication to their country and its citizens.  That peace we enjoy in our nation as a result of their service is something we should rightly be thankful for and never take for granted.

While as Americans, we do enjoy liberty day to day, there is another nation with which we are familiar because we are also citizens of it.  That nation is the Christian Church.  God calls us a holy nation, a people for His own possession [1 Pet. 2:9].  This nation also has an army—although its service is mostly unseen.  There are those dedicated soldiers who work tirelessly to defend the citizens of God’s nation—the army of God’s angels.  Today, on this Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, we remember the faithful service of these angels to us.

But we might ask, What does the God of Peace need with an army?  The very fact that the angels are God’s army means that there is an enemy to be fought and defeated.  This is what we learned from the 2nd reading, from Revelation 12:

“Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (vv. 7-9)

This war is between powers in the heavens, between the angels of God and the angels who follow Satan, who we know as the demons.  Satan and his demons are determined to destroy God’s people, as they have been since the beginning of creation.  This is the true battle between good and evil: It isn’t between warring political parties, social ideologies, or nuclear powers.  It is a war between the Creator of heaven and earth, and a rebellious faction of His servants who threaten the crown of His creation—mankind.  The stakes are not merely the rise and fall of an earthly nation, but the difference between an eternity in hell for us or God’s goal of bringing us into eternal fellowship with Him.

The battle lines are drawn upon the salvation of sinful men and women.  For this, immortal creatures clash as Satan and his army vies for dominance.  As the prophet Isaiah alluded to, “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” (Isaiah 14:12-14).  Satan desired the glory that belongs only to God Himself.  He wants man to worship and serve him.  He wants the majesty of God to be his own, though he is not God.  Then, he planted that same deceit in the heart of Eve, and then Adam.  How he rejoiced when we became convinced of our own ability to become like God, judging for ourselves what was good and what was evil.

But God would not let such a victory be had.  He would not let His glory be given to another [Isa. 48:11].  So, He swore to trample that serpent, to crush his uplifted head, and to unravel the corruption Satan had incited in man.  And because God swears to do it, no creature—not even the most powerful of angels—can overturn God plans. 

That plan of God was carried out with the birth of a “male child” (Rev. 12:5).  Yet this male child was no ordinary son of Adam.  He was not simply another human, conceived in sin and ripe for deception and accusation.  No, this was the One who would turn the battle in favor of God and the salvation of man.  From the beginning, the angels of God have had a heavenly, eternal commander-in-chief: known as the Angel of the Lord and the Lord of Sabaoth.  “Sabaoth” is Hebrew for armies, as we sing in the Sanctus—“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of Sabaoth.”  He is the Lord of God’s Army.  This One entered the battle Himself when He became man and was born that male child.

In this way the battle was swayed in our favor, because the commander of the Lord’s Army, God’s Son Himself, fought for us by taking up our cause in the flesh.  He entered the fray with His almighty power, at which the demons cried out: “I know who you are!  You are the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24) and they cringed at His presence.  No enemy can withstand His power, because He commands even the angels who have rebelled against Him.

Yet it wasn’t only with His might that He fought for us.  His most effective weapon against Satan and the demonic host is His human flesh.  Satan and his army had brought corruption and death to the sons of Adam.  All their flesh had followed in the image of Satan, so that there was none righteous, no not one and all had turned aside to this angel posing as God [Ps. 14:1].  Then came the Lord of Hosts in the same flesh—yet without sin.  The Accuser had nothing to accuse, and try as he might, he could not tempt and deceive this Second Adam [Matt. 4:1-11].  Yet Jesus bore these accusations on behalf of man.  He bore the punishments in our place.  The Lord of Sabaoth died in lowly grief and shame.  And on the Third Day, this same Lord rose victorious over Satan’s greatest weapons against man—sin and death.

Because of this victory, the song rings out in heaven, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:10-11).  This is the victory which guarantees the success of every battle fought until the Last Day.  The commander of the Lord’s army Himself has won in the fight, laying down His life for man and taking it up again [Jn. 10:18].

This battle continues, as it says, “Woe to you, O earth and see, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath because he knows that his time is short!” (12:12).  For this reason, the angels of God still fight the devil and his angels.    The battle is far greater than any human being could win.  The proud devil has been thrown out of heaven, and instead, we have been promised a place there.  But he will not rest until he is cast into hell on the Last Day.

We have heard it in so many Gospel accounts of demon possession, yet we see it in our own day how the devil has deceived a whole generation into only watching out for visible dangers.  The Prince of Lies has convinced the masses that stories of angels and demons were invented by primitive people who had no better way to explain the world around them.  But this plays into his power over us.  As true as the rest of God’s Word, Satan and his demons are a very real threat.  But even more so, the angels of God are a very real help against these enemies!

Satan’s wrath is great against God and against those who belong to Him.  Ever wonder why unbelievers have it so easy?  It’s because Satan and his demons aren’t fighting against them.  They are right where Satan wants them—lost in unbelief.  But we belong to God.  He redeemed us out of the devil’s house with the blood of His only-begotten Son.  Through the waters of Holy Baptism, God brought us into His Kingdom.  But Satan always wants us back.  He fights to regain us as hard as he can, and he’s got a third of the angels fighting with him.

All armies seek the defeat of their enemies, but the devil’s army fights for the damnation of every human being.  It is against this kind of army that God and His holy angels fight.  And, unlike earthly battles, what’s at stake isn’t land or power over people.  As I said before, the outcome here is the difference between eternal life or eternal death. In the Gospel, Jesus says, Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (v. 20).  This shows us what the Lord and His hosts fight for.  He isn’t out to defeat Satan just to show that he’s more powerful.  It’s not a war for the sake of bragging rights.  The Lord is seeking the salvation of all people.  Our boast is in the Lord, not only because He is mighty, but because He is mighty to save us in body and soul forever.

So, it’s for you and me that God’s angels fight.  The Lord Jesus Himself commands these forces to defend us against the devil’s attacks, whether these attacks come to our bodies or our souls.  Satan tries to destroy our souls by fillings us with doubts and telling us lies about God.  Demons cannot dwell alongside the Holy Spirit in believers, but they certainly come pounding on the door.  But God sends His angels to defend us against these attacks.  As Psalm 91 says, “He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.  On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Ps. 91:11-12).  They guard your path, so that you can stay on the narrow path which leads to life [Mt. 7:14].

But the devil also seeks the harm of our bodies because he wants to catch us off-guard.  In one of the ancient prayers of the Church, God’s people pray for deliverance from “sudden and evil death.”  A sudden and evil death is one where we are caught at a time when we’ve been lazy in defending against satanic attacks and perhaps we’ve even hung the Armor of God up in the closet.  But even in these times of blindsided attacks, the Lord sends His angels to watch out for us.  We may or may not know what’s happening, but the help is still there.

The Lord of Hosts and His angels are a great army, always watching out for us.  They fight for us, against an enemy far stronger than any human being.  They fight for God’s people, always keeping vigil for our safety.  They carry out God’s commands with swiftness, accuracy, and without question.  All this they do because of the incredible love of God in Christ Jesus.  Though they already see God face-to-face, they gladly leave His presence to come to our aid.  This they do for us, so that we too can behold Him face-to-face when we will arise in the glorious resurrection.  Through the labors of the holy angels, you and I will enjoy that peace which never ends.  Thank our God and Savior for the faithful service of His holy angels!  Amen.

St. Matthew the Evangelist (Matt. 9:9-13)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Feast of St. Matthew (observed) + September 22, 2019

Text: St. Matthew 9:9-13

Jesus says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  The Lord said this about Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist.  Really it’s one of the main themes of the Gospel that Matthew wrote.  From the very opening verses, it’s a Gospel for sinners—law-breakers like Tamar, prostitutes like Rahab, outcasts like Ruth, adulterers like David and Bathsheba (1:1-17).  Jesus receives John’s baptism for sinners in the Jordan (3:13-17).  He invites good and bad alike to eat with Him (22:1-14).  He goes up to Jerusalem not to be hailed and adored, but to suffer at the hands of evil men and give His life as ransom (16:21, 20:28).  At the end of the Gospel, before He ascends to the Father, He commands that all nations be made disciples, being baptized into Him and being taught His Word that saves sinners (28:16-20).

And all along the way, we think God must have it wrong.  John the Baptizer said, “I need to be baptized by you and do you come to me?”[1]  The Pharisees said, “Why does He eat with tax collectors and sinners?”[2]  Peter said, “[Suffer and be killed?] Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”[3]  There must be some mistake with the Christ, the Son of the living God!

Everyone expects God to call the righteous and to keep company with the good people.  Businesses open close to their clientele.  There’s a reason all the pawn shops spring up by Walmart.  So also, if you were in 1st century Jerusalem, looking for the Messiah, you would think to watch for Him in the Temple or with the most devout Jews.  That’s where any self-respecting Messiah would spend time.

But the Messiah says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[4]  So Jesus should keep company with those who have never used the Lord’s name as a curse, who have never despised God’s Word and worship, who haven’t angered their parents and civil authorities, who have never had a hateful or unchaste thought, and so forth.

And Jesus would be entirely alone: “There is none who is righteous, no not one.”[5]

Jesus wasn’t born for godly people.  His very Name says it all, “He saves His people from their sins.”[6]  If He had wanted to avoid the ungodly, He would have stayed in heaven like the god of Islam.  But He didn’t.  He came to the very creation filled with sin, and to the very sinners who fill it.  The surprise of God’s Messiah is that He walks right into the tax collector’s booth and says to Matthew, “Follow me.”

But what about the Law?  We know our unholiness and what we deserve from God. “My punishment is more than I can bear,” cried Cain the murderer.  “Woe is me! For I am lost,” cried Isaiah before God’s throne.  “Our hope is lost,”[7] cried the sons of Israel.  And this is all the devil wants us to believe.  There couldn’t be hope for someone as miserable as you.  You’ve gone too far down, wandered to far from the fold.  You’ve messed up one too many times for Jesus.  You’re not good enough to come to church—maybe a biker church, but not a formal one.

But the true Jesus, the real Messiah, “preaches peace to you who are far off and peace to those who are near.”[8]  It is impossible to be too bad for Jesus.  He “came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  He came to call sinners, no matter how guilty, depraved, wretched, and naked.  No matter how long you’ve denied Him, what you’ve done years ago or this morning, Jesus is your Savior.

The problem isn’t being too sinful to have a Savior, but rather of thinking you’re good enough.  Jesus also says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”  The question for each of us is, when have we thought ourselves healthy enough to get by without Jesus?

Nobody goes to the doctor if they’re feeling fine.  We’re practical and busy people, and if there aren’t any symptoms, then why be bothered?  This is so much the case that some insurance companies use incentives to convince people to have preventive checks.  But if we’re feeling fine, there must be no problem, right?  Enough of us have had experiences that have showed that can be a false sense of security.

So also with our spiritual health.  Everything seems alright from our viewpoint.  Sure, I’m a Christian because I was baptized and confirmed.  I’m a member of that church…or I was one time.  But then our Lord, the Great Physician, starts asking diagnostic questions:

Have you loved everyone with whom you’ve crossed paths, always honoring, protecting, and doing everything you can to build them up? (4th-10th commandments)

Do you love God’s Word and are grieved to miss church? (3rd)

Do you always tell the truth, letting your yes be yes and your no be no?[9] (2nd)

Have you feared or loved in something on earth as if it were a god? (1st)

As you sit in the exam chair of the pew, things aren’t as fine as you think.  Then He orders lab results.  The results of that are even bleaker: “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth”…“God looks down from heaven on the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away.”… “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[10]  We may not have the symptoms of someone who is terminally ill, but the test results are there in black and white.  Truly we are all sick to the point of death.

               But what treatment is there for such ill patients?  Some will try home remedies.  After all, it’s so much hassle to go to church and the people can be overwhelming.  The pastor might say something that hits too close to home.  Better just to stay at home and watch a church service on TV, or read the Bible in the privacy of your own home.  If you have a question about something, just ask an Internet forum and there’s sure to be an answer that makes sense to you.

               Another option is to get a second opinion.  Take your illness to another pastor and church and see if they give you a different answer.  Maybe you’ll find one that silences your guilty conscience and lets you live the life you want.  Even better, you could find a church where nobody knows you, and  you can fly under the radar.

               But if neither of those options sounds good, you can always just ignore the diagnosis until really bad symptoms manifest.  The Great Physician hasn’t given you a prognosis on how long you’ll live, but wouldn’t it be better to live out your days enjoying the time you have left?  Check off your bucket list!

               There is only one Physician who can treat and heal this sin-sickness.  If you recognize your terminal condition, He is always ready to heal.  Here’s what the treatment will be like: You may see some immediate results, but don’t be discouraged if you can’t see them.  There are no side effects from the medicine, but your disease will definitely respond adversely to it—like the raised bumps on your arm after a TB vaccination, only worse.  In the pamphlet called the Book of Romans, St. Paul teaches us what signs to watch for: “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” (Rom. 7:7-8)

               The medicine that Jesus gives to sin-sick people is His Word. “He sent out His Word and healed them,” says Psalm 107[:20], “and delivered them from their destruction.”  His Word kills and brings to life because its active ingredient is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, is in that Word to raise sinners up from spiritual (and one Day also bodily) death.

               What’s more, the Great Physician has more than one way to administer this saving Word.  He applies it with water: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  With water and the Word He washes our hearts and gives us a good conscience before God.[11]  He gives us the Holy Spirit to confirm and strengthen us in faith.  It is vital for everyone who desires salvation to receive the medicine in Baptism—“for the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to Himself.”[12]

               The Lord also applies His Word in Confession and Absolution.  He puts His Word on His people’s lips with the amazing reality: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”[13]

He also gives His medicine in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  He “earnestly desires” to share His Body and Blood with us,[14] because of how He heals and strengthens us.  Taking bread, “…he gave it to them saying, ‘This is my Body, which is given for you.’”[15]  Taking a cup, “he gave it to them saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is sacrificially poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”[16]

               And in this congregation, we have the profound opportunity to receive these treatments weekly—well not the last one, but if anyone wants to help out on altar guild, we can look at that.

               It is a mysterious treatment that our divine Physician gives because it doesn’t work a full cure until the resurrection on the Last Day.  You may see improvements in symptoms here and there, but you will still see yourself moving toward the grave.  Fear not and don’t stop His treatment.  His Word is effective, for by it the heavens were created.  And, as St. Paul writes in Romans 8, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies.”[17]

               Fellow sinners, you are all beloved by God.  He came down from heaven with you in mind.  He sought out Matthew in the tax collector’s booth and He is seeking you now.  “Follow Me,” is His call, for He is fully able to absolve you and bring you to His eternal Kingdom.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 3:14

[2] Matthew 9:11

[3] Matthew 16:22

[4] Matthew 5:20

[5] Psalm 14:1-3

[6] Matthew 1:21

[7] Genesis 4:13; Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 37:11

[8] Ephesians 2:17

[9] Matthew 5:37

[10] Genesis 8:21, Psalm 53:2-3, Matthew 5:48

[11] Ephesians 5:26, 1 Peter 3:21

[12] Acts 2:39

[13] Matthew 18:18

[14] Luke 22:15

[15] Luke 22:19

[16] Matthew 26:28

[17] Romans 8:11

Holy Cross Day (observed) (John 12:20-33)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Holy Cross Day (obs.) + September 15, 2019

Text: John 12:20-33

“Lift high the cross,” the Church sings, “the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore His sacred Name.”

The cross has been a symbol of Christianity for countless generations.  At a glance you can recognize a Christian or the church they belong to because it has a cross on it.  (You can also learn something when a group purposely doesn’t put a cross on anything.)  But I’m afraid that if enough crosses are stamped on things to identify us as Christians, it’s possible for us not to feel its full weight.

While Lift High the Cross, prominently featured in the Mission and Witness section of the hymnal, evokes images of military formation and victory in battle, that is not yet what we experience in our daily life. It is what we know from God’s Word and we hold to by faith, but the cross, this side of Christ’s return, is more often associated with pain.

The cross is a stumbling block.  Early Christians were ridiculed for such a stupid religion that we glorified an executed criminal: “Alexamenos worships his god,” one graffito teased as it depicted a man with a donkey’s head hung upon a cross.  The cross is an instrument of brutal torture and asphyxiation.  When Jesus breathed His last, it was after hours of agony bearing the sins of the world and just rejection of God.

But even if it is a stumbling block to those who are perishing, the crucified Son of God is the One in whom we glory.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we poor sinners know that through that shameful execution of Jesus, God the Father was offering up His Son as a ransom in our place, to save our lives from both death and hell.

Here in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus foretells His death and resurrection.  Yet, here He foretells it, not with echoes from the Prophets, but as a proclamation of the Father’s glory and His will for all men:

27 “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

When the Son of Man is lifted up from the earth, suspended between earth and heaven—putting Himself in that breach between God and man made by sin—there He draws us to Himself with the almighty and renewing power of the Holy Spirit.

The occasion for Jesus saying this is some Greeks coming to see Jesus.  When these people come to see Him, He begins to teach them about what it means to follow and serve this Crucified Lord:

25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”

As we contemplate and celebrate the Holy Cross, this is a refresher for us as to its true significance in our lives:

  • When we are drawn to the cross, it is necessary that we die.  It’s an easy thing to wear a cross pendant around your neck, but when the cross is put upon us in Holy Baptism, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” (Romans 6:3) We die to the old man with his corrupt desires, for “How can we who died still live in [sin]?” (6:2)  [Colossians 3:5-9] We die to sexual intimacy and desire except in  God’s institution of marriage. We die to the on-demand attitude of the world that imposes our personal preference on others and demands that everything—including corporate worship be to our liking.  We die to lusting after other’s lives.  We die to using our tongue as a weapon to wield against others, either with aggression and rage, or subtly as the snake [Gen. 3] with slander.  When we are drawn to the cross, all of those things must perish from us, and be nailed to the cross. And all who will not die to them endanger their salvation.
  • When we are drawn to the cross, we remove sins as far as the east is from the west.  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Many think the central mark of Christians is their social ministry activities.  But when Jesus draws us to Himself, He says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) That means a far more difficult thing than handing out a warm blanket and a bowl of soup.  “As I have loved you” comes from the One who laid down His life for His enemies.  True Christian love is that which forgives from the heart and will remember those wrongs no more.
    • I commend to you a practice that I’ve found helpful.  During the Lord’s Prayer, pause after the Fifth Petition, and say the names of your offenders out loud.  Say it and picture their sins being nailed to the cross.
    • If you don’t pray the Lord’s Prayer at home, start now—by yourself, with your family.  Jesus taught us this prayer so that we would know the blessings which flow through the cross, and so the cross would daily be a part of a Christian’s life.

There is no room for grudges—any—because God has forgiven the debt which would send us to present death and eternal suffering.  So, if we do what our Lord commands, let Him give us new hearts, contrite and humble, which “forgive as God in Christ forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:28). 

When we are drawn to Him who hung on the cross, we receive the Life of the World.  It is true that the Lord Jesus draws all people to Himself, but only some heed the call.  Not by your own reason or strength, but because the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel are you here (or reading this) today.  And because you have ears to hear, you are blessed.  The Lord who has drawn you to His cross, forgiven you all your sins, now also invites you to taste of the fruit of His cross: His very Body and Blood given and shed for you.  You are drawn not only to follow Him, but to have Communion with Him.

The holy cross of Jesus became yours when you were baptized into his death and resurrection.  The holy cross is yours every time you pray to God your Father in the Name He gave you.  The fruits of the holy cross are in you as you eat His Body and drink His blood.  So, you see the cross is far more than a symbol to quickly identify Christians—it is a Christians very death, and eternal life.  Glory be to God forever. Amen.