Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Exodus 19:1–20 | 2 Cor. 8:1–9, 13–15 | Mark 5:21–43

Text: Exodus 19:1-20

How do we get to know one another?  Through a common bond at church or school?  That foundation of friendship, or in the case of our spouse of romance and affection, sets the stage for what we know about the other person.

What’s the basis on which we know the Lord?  For Israel it was the covenant.  Each time He introduces the covenant to His people, He starts with what He has done: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”  The way the sons of Israel came to know the Lord was through His saving work.

  • We, like them, come to know Him through His saving work.
    • What’s the first way you came to know Him? Baptism as a child? Becoming acquainted as an adult in need of forgiveness?  Daily reminded of your dependence on His grace?
  • This sets the tone for His conversation with us:
    • But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)
    • Just like the people of Israel, we have been called to belong to God, and we come to know Him through His mercy to a scattered human race, lost in darkness.  But in Christ, we have a new identity: Child of God and child of light.
  • Even though we know His saving work more clearly, we still struggle to apply it day to day.
    • The Israelites were quick to say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  But did they really know to what they were committing?
    • In our confirmation vows, we pledge—with the Lord’s help—to remain faithful unto death and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall way from the Lord.  What trials we face that we couldn’t fathom ahead of time.
  • What can be done? 
    • The same thing which the Apostles did: “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)
    • When things get hard, should we give up and think we made a mistake by pledging our lives to God?  Or is that the very time in which the Lord wants us to give up on ourselves, our strength, our ways, our plans.  Rather, we ought to commit our lives to the God who made heaven and earth, and who graciously cares for us all.
  • He instructed the Israelites to consecrate or set themselves apart.
    • At that time, it meant to wash their garments, not touch the mountain, and to not go near a woman.
    • For us, we have a better washing, the waters of Baptism to which God called us again today: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” (1 Peter 3:21-22)
    • While the Israelites were warned from touching the mountain, through the blood which Jesus offered, we are actually invited near to Him:
      • 18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest… 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24)
      • That’s because the mountain to which we are called is not Sinai, but Calvary where the blood of Jesus was poured out for the sins of all.
  • The Israelites were to prepare themselves by not having intimate relations, and our bodily preparations—while not required—also prepare us to turn our full attention to what He is saying.  The Small Catechism urges us, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”
    • Fasting from food may be helpful, but we ought to set aside whatever would detract our hearing of God’s Word.  Sometimes there’s some vocational conflict, like a parent who has to redirect their children in the pew, or a job that occasionally keeps you away from worship but otherwise provides for your family.
    • Bodily preparation is common sense things, which we apply to other areas of our life.  We get sleep before tests or long trips; we put down the phone while we drive.  How much more attention the Divine Service deserves, because this is the very place where heaven touches earth!

In Jesus Christ, we have come to a greater mountain, not one covered in thunder and smoke, but one where the once-for-all sacrifice for sins was made.  That took our sins away and the fear we have that God will condemn us.  Even though we do not see the consuming fire of God, may the Holy Spirit keep us in reverent fear and faithful devotion to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 11:25-30)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost + July 9, 2017
Text: Matthew 11:25-30

It’s natural to think that those who strive are the ones who achieve their goals.  After all, that’s what we experience in our lives.  Initiative, determination, and dedication are all qualities that benefit you in daily life.
Yet, when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, all that works in the world of man must be thrown out.  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
We naturally love to build ladders to God.  For example, the idea is popular that if you live an upright life—you never curse, cheat, steal, or laugh at an off-color joke; but always talk about God and give Him credit, show your dedication by volunteering and going on mission trips—then you will be closer to God.  This is the ladder of moralism, which believes God is with those who seem to be the top caliber of religious people.
Sometimes we build a ladder to God with our emotions.  We feel the Word of God sweeping over us, transforming, kindling us—and insist that everyone must feel God’s “presence” like so.  We pray, but don’t lift a finger until we have felt that God has given us direction.  On this ladder, we insist that worship take us to a higher plane of reality, experiencing an out-of-this world lifting up.  This is the ladder of mysticism, which believes that God is an “experience” to be sought after.
Sometimes we build a ladder to God with our minds.  It stands to reason that your level of knowing God is directly related to how much you read the Bible.  If you meditate who God is enough, attend enough Bible studies, memorize enough passages of Scripture, then you too will know God better.  This is the ladder of speculation, in which salvation comes by having a better knowledge about God than others have, and makes God a subject for analysis.[1]
As natural achievers, we imagine that God is someone to be sought out, and our faith something to be achieved.  This shows up in the life of the congregation, too.  It’s believed that the people who put the most are the ones who get the most out.  If you read your Bible daily, show up for every Bible study, participate in all the activities and life of the congregation, that makes you a “better” Christian than those who “just” come to the Divine Service.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding.”  God hides himself from the wise and understanding, those who are proud of the initiative they’ve taken to deepen their relationship with God.  God cannot, and will not be found by us.  He always reveals Himself to man.
27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
So what do the “wise and understanding” people find when they seek for God?  They find exactly what they want to find: a god who is so very pleased with them.  It’s a god created in their own image who rewards their hard work and dedication.  But this is no god at all; it is an idol.  To those who persist in this delusion, this is what they will hear from the Lord on the Last Day: 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’[2]  If we find any other God besides the One who graciously makes Himself known to sinners, we haven’t really found God at all.
The Father reveals His Son to little children (nepios, a child who can’t even talk yet).  Think about what this means.  God makes Himself known to who can’t even form a coherent sentence, much less a lengthy and pious prayer.  He reveals Himself to those who have absolutely no spiritual credentials to claim.  God draws near to those who are entirely dependent and need instruction, guidance, and discipline; not those who stand on their own and have their stuff together.
28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This is His gracious invitation to the undeserving and unqualified: “Come to me!”  His call goes out to all who have been broken by the weight of meeting the hidden God—the one who makes strict demands and threatens hell for all who are disobedient, yet no one could find a way to appease God’s anger and a guilty conscience.  It’s when our ladders come crashing down that we see God cannot be sought for by anything within us—a presumed moral superiority, shifting emotions, or a darkened mind.
Come to Christ, the Father reveals His Son.  He only is the Holy One who is worthy before God.  Only His moral perfection, His pure heart, and His pure mind count before God.  He is the one who is worthy to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His holy place.  Yet, He gives that holiness as a gift to all who, by the Holy Spirit, accept His invitation.
This is why the Church of God is made up of people of such varying backgrounds, spiritual strengths and weaknesses.  The Son of God is the one constant among us all, and the Father has called us by the Gospel to be adopted as His children.  As beloved children, He has removed the labor and heavy burden of our salvation.  In its place, the Son places His yoke upon us for true service of God.
In this family of God, there are no distinctions, but just as we are baptized into the one Christ, we receive the same Spirit of service.  That’s where you see Christians otherwise so vastly different in age, maturity, and ability active in the Kingdom of heaven.  They do it from a free heart, a clean heart which their heavenly Father has bestowed on them by His Holy Spirit—not because of their decision to seek Him, but out of His wondrous grace that called us to Christ.  Amen.
[1] These three ladders are described in Adolf Köberle’s book, “The Quest for Holiness” (1936)
[2] Matthew 7:22-23