Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Text: Mark 9:14-29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 20:1-16)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon and Sweet Home, OR
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Baptism of David Timothy Miller) + September 24, 2017
Text: Matthew 20:1-16

The dictionary defines grace as unmerited favor from God. So, we sing praises of God’s grace in Christ.  We name congregations after it and we sing about how amazing grace is.  It truly is incredible to ponder, as Paul explains it in Romans 5: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  What an incredible thought, that the righteous judge of all humanity, the One who knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, the one to whom we will all have to give an account…has paid the penalty for our evil, and embraced His enemies as sons!
We can’t say enough about God’s grace when it has to do with us personally.  Yet, in practice, God’s grace becomes a stumbling block to the natural way we think.
That’s what Jesus shows in this parable.  It’s a work setting, and what we know about work is that labor deserves fair wages.  Here, the wages are constant: a denarius, a silver coin which was the going rate for a day laborer.  What varies is how much work is done.  In some cases, 12 hours, others 9, 6, 3, and even 1.  However, at the end of the day, each receives the same wage—for varying work.
This is a picture of grace, not that the laborers worked and got paid, but that they watched other people work less or more, yet get the same wage.  There would have been no quarrel if those hired at the beginning of the day hadn’t seen the latecomers.  But if grace is unmerited favor, then those 12-hour workers also wouldn’t understand what those hired at the last hour experienced: That for very little if any work, they were accounted as having worked a whole day.
But this is how the kingdom of heaven is.  It’s not about our labors or our striving or even our wise choices.  Because of that, grace is scandalous.
Grace is scandalous because it means the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something that can be achieved.  Today, we witnessed that beautifully in an infant being baptized.  I can be perfectly honest and say that David had no clue what we were doing or had any comprehension of the words that were being said.  As an infant, he is as close as you can get to being a non-participant.  He can’t even find his mouth with his hand, much less vocalize the name Jesus.
But this is an offense to us who think the Kingdom of Heaven is something for us to enter.  They cite Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  They argue people shouldn’t be baptized as babies because they don’t know what’s going on, and they can’t decide that it’s right for them.  The scandal about grace is that it happens apart from our works, so that it even happens to the unaware.  The recipients of grace are so passive that the best example of faith is parents bringing even infants to Jesus that He might bless them.
Consider the Paralytic and his friends: “And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  The man is there, not inert like a rock, but he certainly can’t bring himself.  But is says when Jesus saw their faith, He declared the man’s sins forgiven.  What had he done?  Had he brought himself? No.  Did he ask his friends? Maybe, but it doesn’t say that.  He is another perfect picture of grace, because it’s received apart from works.
Grace is also a scandal because it isn’t just.  Even if we can get over our unbelief that a little bitty baby can have faith and receive the Kingdom, we have trouble with grace when it means God welcomes people deserve far from forgiveness and salvation.
Conflicts with others in the church challenge the application of grace.  It’s not just that they didn’t lift a finger to move toward God, but they are guilty of fighting against God and other people!  If grace happened in a vacuum, it wouldn’t be a problem, but when you see God’s grace given to sinners, our thirst for people getting the just rewards of their actions isn’t sated.
But through Jesus Christ, it is achieved—both in achievement and in justice.  You are saved by works—Christ’s.  In Jesus Christ, justice is carried out, the scales are balanced in a divine, miraculous way.  All our sin, be it small or great, is paid for by the blood which Jesus shed on the cross.
So the reward is the same, not in silver or gold, but in the precious blood of Christ.  The Kingdom of Heaven is not a reward for our works, but a gift paid for by another.  That’s grace, and it’s not just for you.  It’s also for the person sitting next to you, the people you meet on the street, and for even those you can’t stand.  Repent of your earthly grumblings, and let your heart be tuned to the grace of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.