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.

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 7:15-23)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Eighth Sunday after Trinity + August 11, 2019

Text: Matthew 7:15-23

You can tell a garden that is kept and tended from a garden that has been neglected.  The tended garden shows careful attention, addresses weeds before they get out of hand and hurt the good plants preventing them from bearing fruit.

The Lord relates to gardening, because He put Adam and Eve on the earth (and in the Garden of Eden) to tend and care for it.  He gave them responsibilities, and didn’t give them a creation that can just take care of itself.

The Gospel for today also uses gardening for a lesson:

“Beware of false prophets…You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Often, God likens the Church to a garden.  Isaiah 5 uses the image of a vineyard: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.” (v. 7) John 15 further illustrates who’s Who, when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (vv. 1-2) The Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21 further clarifies that, just as God does the planting, growing, and pruning, He uses human servants to carry out his work: “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.  When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” (vv. 33-34)

And finally, St. Paul applies this to a situation where the Church started picking favorites among those human servants:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field” (5-9a)

You are God’s field.  Pastors are fellow workers of God, like God’s gardeners.  Jesus says it’s possible to know a false prophet by their fruits.  Of course, there’s a negative lesson from Jesus’ words: Watch out for false prophets, watch for bad fruit.  But what that tells us is the fruit is the best rule the Church on earth has for evaluating its servants.  To put it another way, If you want to know if you have a good gardener, you ask, how does their garden grow?  What sort of fruits are being produced?

Those of us who have gardens enjoy seeing them flourish.  We can relate to God’s garden metaphors—His desire for grapes, His work of pruning to remove what is dead and strengthen what is fruitful, His watering and daily attention to what He’s planted.  All of it is a labor of love.  But sometimes, even though we put all the right effort in, it still fails. Plants get diseased and whither, deer help themselves to our roses and crops, and the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Nobody would fault a gardener for this.

These sorts of things happen in the Church too.  But when they do, we need to remember the words of the Apostle, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”  But what does that growth look like?

It’s important that we don’t equate growth with increase, or increase with growth.  God’s work for His Church is growth, not just increase in numbers.  There are lots of ways to attract people under the guise of religion. False prophets are excellent at this, but they create a deception. They give the appearance of church, but devoid of the genuine fruits which God is seeking.

There is only one way to make growth: Planting, watering, and tending the good Word of God.  That is the gardening which God blesses.  Yes, it might go through brown times or lean times, but let us trust our heavenly Vinedresser and be faithful to His instructions for care: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

When we get growth and increase confused, it can lead to problems.  This especially comes up when we’re looking for “more people” to come into the Church.  Let’s be honest, in gardening terms, we have a very large plot in this sanctuary, but it’s not densely populated.  Maybe that leads to the thought that we should be able to fill those empty pews, and that we’re doing something wrong if they’re not.  Maybe it leads us to envy other churches around town that seem to be increasing.

But just like having a garden that’s way too much for you to manage, it’s a strain on appreciating what we do have.  It makes us have ulterior motives for wanting to see new faces arrive.  But all we need to be is God’s field, tended by a faithful gardener (pastor), growing with a growth that comes through the Word of God. 

The Lord does not bid His Church to “bring people in” or “keep the doors open.”  He’s in charge of that.  What matters to Him is what we do with those He has given us, and how do His servants tend the garden that is there?  In order to grow the Church God’s way, this is what to do:

  • Planting His Word: Live as witnesses of His forgiveness and firm foundation in a world of shifting sand.  Invite your friends and family when, after praying, the time seems right.
  • Watering that Word by recognizing that your need for Sabbath rest is greater than the grind of the week, and when it all passes away, you will still have God, your rock and fortress.  Come to Bible study, or if you can’t, invest in a Lutheran Study Bible and use that during the week.
  • Tending that Word: Yes, of course it’s the pastor’s duty to tend God’s garden, weeding and fertilizing, etc.  But we also do that for one another: “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.” (Galatians 6:1-2)  The Church is the Communion of saints, of brothers and sisters who lovingly watch out for each other not just in temporal things but more importantly in our spiritual welfare!

Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Acts 20:27-38)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Eighth Sunday after Trinity + July 22, 2018
Text: Acts 20:27-38

It’s a virtue to find the best in everyone’s intentions.  Indeed even the catechism, when teaching us about our neighbor’s reputation says that we should “put the best construction on everything.”
On the other hand, we can’t deny that there are those whose intentions are harmful, and in a spiritual sense, even evil intentions.  When St. Paul was preparing to leave the church at Ephesus, he called together all the pastors of the churches (the New Testament uses the term elder or presbyter, not in the sense of laymen who assist the pastor, but as one who is called and ordained by the Holy Spirit to “keep watch over God’s flock”).  His message to them seems very foreboding:
28Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31Therefore be alert…” (Acts 20:28–31)
What of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit?  What about love and showing hospitality?  Yes, there is definitely need for that, and that belongs to the “whole counsel of God.”  But this message is also quite necessary.
In East Oakland, California, there are many neighborhoods that are plagued by crime.  One of the most effective deterrents is having a dog.  But the people there want a dog that’s going to be imposing.  So, behind chain link fences, you see pit bulls, mastiffs, and German shepherds.  If you live in the ghetto, and you wanted your home safe, you wouldn’t get a Chihuahua or a Bichon Frise.
It would be wonderful if the Christian Church lived in a good neighborhood.  But if you believe what the Scriptures say, it sounds like there are a lot of enemies set on robbing us of our faith: 15“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) 6Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” (Mark 13:6)  8Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
It’s dangerous out there, and how much more so if Christians cover their eyes and pretend the danger doesn’t exist.  The reason we must be so vigilant is because those who belong to Christ are under attack by the devil and his hordes. Christ who saved us was threatened with death, tempted, lied about, and mocked.  Since none of those attacks prevented Him from ransoming us with His death and resurrection, now Satan goes after the Church.  This is how Revelation 12 depicts this: “Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (v. 12)
To defend His flock against these constant assaults, God appoints pastors to keep watch over your souls.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  A major part of their charge from the Lord is to keep on guard against false teaching and teachers, some of whom “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things.”
What a priceless and holy work pastors have!  They are appointed as stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1), they feed the Lord’s sheep, bringing insight, correction, and divine comfort!  It’s the aspiration to do this which draws men to the seminary to be formed as pastors.
Yet even in this, the devil doesn’t leave us alone.  All three readings today deal with the problem of false prophets.   Through Jeremiah, a true prophet, the Lord said: 16Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. 17They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ ”” (Jeremiah 23:16–17)  Still, in the Gospel, the Lord Jesus warns us, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)
One of the biggest headaches of this work actually isn’t ministering to broken, sinful people.  It’s cleaning up the mess made by false prophets.  The trouble is that the false prophets have all the trappings of true prophets.  They use convincing-sounding words, they dress like any other teacher of the Church, and the worst ones even use a Bible and get some things right.  Underneath their veneer of truth are the lies of Satan, who seeks to rob you of your confidence, spiritual peace, concord, and ultimately your saving faith.  We shouldn’t be surprised at this, however.  St. Paul explains to the Corinthians:
13For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15)
These false prophets give the true prophets a bad reputation.  A true prophet admits some but keeps back others from Communion.  Closed communion is our Lord’s will because it means exercising careful spiritual care of the congregation. But then false prophets allow everyone on the basis of their affirmation of a bulletin statement, or sometimes without any examination at all.  Then, someone comes to a congregation where a true prophet is exercising this authority, and they get in a tizzy and call that man unloving and too dogmatic.
True prophets pay careful attention to the worship service, and make sure that nothing contrary to good doctrine enters the sanctuary of God.  That is why the pastor picks the hymns and songs, going over them to ensure that they will build up and not confuse.  Although he does his best with the musical elements of musicality, his primary concern is that the words which we are singing confess and give voice to the Christian faith.  Even if a song might be popular, and people like to sing it, it’s ultimately the pastor’s job to exercise oversight.
In these ways, the pastor is a spiritual father.  Fathers want what is best for their household, and it’s a joy to do that.  However, there are times when there’s a strong craving for too much of an unhealthy thing like chocolate cake.  Other times, it’s a matter of correcting error or reforming bad practice.  But it’s best when the people of God recognize this and receive their good things from the Lord through their pastor, as Hebrews 13:17 admonishes us: 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
God the Holy Spirit helps us in the Church, because we always have His Holy Word to guide us in all truth.  In Jeremiah, the problem was that false prophets stood up next to the true prophets and said a counterfeit message.  In our day, however, we are blessed because we have God’s inspired, infallible Word recorded for our learning.  St. John instructs us, “Beloved, test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1)  Our way of testing the prophets is the pure teaching of Scripture.
The Church has also found it useful to explain doctrinal controversies from God’s Word.  The shorthand name for these is symbols, which reflect what the Holy Scriptures say on a particular question.  That’s where the Creeds come from, because they answer questions about how God reveals Himself in Scripture in the face of those who oppose the truth.  At other points, faithful Christians have written down other confessions, as the Lutheran churches did.  The Augsburg Confession gives a clear explanation about God, Christ’s work, the pastoral office, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and many more.  The Small Catechism is another example of this, because instead of plopping a Bible in front of someone, it highlights the most important things which the Bible teaches us that we might know our Savior.
God has truly blessed His Church, preserving her against the assaults of the devil and giving us the truth when so many claim to have it.  May God the Holy Spirit, who has entrusted your souls to the care of a pastor, bless this work.  May He give us receptive hears to His Word and strength and dedication to His servants.  To that end, we now sing and pray, “Send, O Lord, Your Holy Spirit.”  Amen.