Luke 19:11-27 - The Calm before Judgment - November 10, 2019

In Wisconsin, we know all about the calm before the storm, don’t we? During the summer months the calm consists of a strange stillness in the air, a strange tint in the sky, and dark clouds billowing on the horizon. It’s the calm before a thunderstorm. And it’s a time for action: put the deck furniture away, gather the outdoor toys, close the windows and keep an eye on weather alerts. In winter, it’s the ominous, hazy, cloudy, eerie, stillness before a snowstorm. And we know what to do: skip out of work early if you can, check for cancelations, stop by the grocery store for the essentials (like beer and wine), then get home, hunker down and stay warm. The calm before the storm is a time for activity, for preparation. In these last three weeks of the church year, our focus turns to the end of time, to the storm of judgment that is coming for the world. And in the text before us, Jesus urges us to be busy, to be active putting his money to work during this calm before judgment.

 

When the Holy Spirit records why Jesus tells a parable, that means it’s important and we should pay attention. Luke reports that he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. Many Israelites thought that when Jesus entered Jerusalem he was going to immediately establish his earthly kingdom, by expelling the Romans, restoring an independent Israel and creating a prosperous economy. (Not so different from those today who understand the coming of the kingdom to be visible prosperity, social justice or an end to poverty and war.) Certainly Jesus was going to Jerusalem to win his kingdom by his suffering and death, however, not in the sense they were thinking; it wasn’t going to be an earthly, visible kingdom – not yet. The great theme of this section is that Jesus’ kingdom won’t come until he has left and later returned. But this delay, this pause, this calm is not a time for laziness but for activity.

 

The first thing the nobleman does is call ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ The nobleman is clearly Jesus. His “going to a distant country” is prophetic of his Ascension where he would receive all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). But prior to his departure he leaves his servants, the Church, his treasure. What is this treasure? I’ve heard and you’ve heard that the mina represents the time, talents, and treasures the Lord has given us. Thus the sermon should be about proper stewardship of these gifts. Well, this is a stewardship text, but not about your time, talent or treasure. How can we be sure? Because unlike the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, all the servants receive the exact same amount. What does Jesus give to everyone in the church in the precise same amount? Not talents, not money, not possessions, not spiritual gifts. Right here in this room is a dizzying array of these gifts. What Jesus has left every one of his servants, every one of us, in equal amounts is nothing more and nothing less than the means of grace: the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.

 

This is the great treasure Jesus has given us to put to work. The waters of baptism that wash away sin and provide rebirth into God’s family. The Gospel that proclaims absolution, forgiveness for every last sin. Bread and wine that is his body and blood to nourish our faith. He wants us to baptize all nations (Matthew 28:19) and to daily remember our Baptism (Romans 6); to hear and preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2); to forgive and be forgiven (Matthew 6:12); to eat and drink his body and blood often (1 Corinthians 11:25). This is the business of our Lord. This – so aptly illustrated here by font, altar and pulpit – is what his servants are to be busy doing.

 

But this treasure is nothing in the eyes of the unbelieving world. That’s what’s being illustrated by the mina. A mina was worth 100 days wages. At $15 an hour that would be roughly $12,000 today. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s also not much for the King of kings to leave his servants. And the world is unimpressed. The world is impressed by the power of the almighty dollar, not by the cleansing power of water; by words that criticize and cut down not words that forgive sins; by a King who sheds the blood of his enemies, not a King who sheds his own blood to save his enemies (Romans 5:10).

 

And so, even as the Church is diligently putting these treasures to work, Christ’s enemies work against him. Jesus puts it this way: his subjects hated him. “Hate” is a strong word, but when Jesus tells parables he exposes what’s really in people’s hearts rather than what they show to others. Even though one day every knee shall bow before their King (Philippians 2:10), during the calm many reject his rule. There is no such thing as neutrality towards Jesus. How could there be? Jesus makes exclusive and eternal claims on people’s lives. He demands absolute fear, love and trust. For the most part in our culture, unbelievers usually put on a show of being polite towards Christ, but the awful truth is that anyone who rejects Jesus as King are also rejecting him as their Savior.

 

It’s fascinating how they do this: [they] sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ What are they doing? They are appealing to what they believe is a higher authority; an authority, a god, above and beyond Jesus. The Jews did this very thing when they claimed to have no king but Caesar (John 19:15). The Bible says that, no one is above Jesus, that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). But unbelievers believe that there is a god over Jesus. He’s the god on our money, the god who supposedly has a special place in his heart for America. He’s the god that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists can all pray to together in times of tragedy. He’s the “higher power” that virtually everyone acknowledges – but this god has no name, no identity, no moral standards, no revelation of himself, no power to condemn – and, most importantly, no power to save. This is the god of those who insist on calling the pine tree in the capitol rotunda a “holiday” tree and not a “Christmas” tree – because this is a god whom all religions, and no religion, are welcome to celebrate.

 

The obvious question is: why such hatred for Jesus? Because Jesus’ enemies believe that his rule is harsh and tyrannical. He is unloving because he doesn’t allow women to kill their babies or boys to mutilate their bodies to become girls. He is intolerant because he forbids individuals of the same sex to get married and adopt children. He is mean because he forbids rebellion against his representatives but instructs his representatives to discipline wrongdoers. He is unreasonable because he insists that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). All of this is unacceptable to Jesus’ enemies and so during this calm before Judgment Day they rage against his rule.

And so we shouldn’t be surprised when they do just that. Jesus tells us this parable so that we won’t be surprised when his enemies rage against his reign – or against his Church. But perhaps the most surprising thing he is telling us is that some of those who call themselves Christian, who are in the visible church, are really his enemies. This is the third servant. Actually, Jesus doesn’t actually call him the “third servant.” He calls him, literally, “the other one.” The Greek word is ἕτερος from which we get the word heterodox. You’re orthodox if you rightly teach and practice God’s Word. You’re heterodox if you don’t.

 

This heterodoxy can either corporate or private. Corporately, churches or even entire church bodies bury the means of grace under man-made laws and wisdom and rituals. Baptism is replaced by an altar call. The Word of God is replaced with the wisdom of a man (or woman). They deny that Jesus gave his servants the authority to forgive sins on earth (John 20:22-23). Holy Communion is nothing more than bread and wine. They have the treasure Jesus left them, but by false teaching and practice they effectively keep it wrapped up and hidden away. Individually, this is the person who belongs to a church, but who either has a distorted view of the means of grace – that they something we do for God, rather than his gift to us – or neglect the means of grace completely. Both fall under the category of the other, heterodox servant because they do not use Jesus treasure as he has commanded.

 

And just like Jesus enemies’, these heterodox people blame Jesus for their own failure. Just as the third servant in the parable justifies his laziness out of fear, so the heterodox claim that the reason they don’t use the means of grace is because they are afraid of Jesus. Is that true? I had some scary football coaches, but that fear didn’t lead me to disobey but rather to do what they said. The reality is that people who won’t use Baptism, Absolution, or Communion are so unafraid of Jesus, and his impending judgment, that they feel free to ignore his specific commands to do these things (Hebrews 10:24-25). In the end, the heterodox, hypocritical, lazy church or church member is no different from Jesus’ declared enemies. They think he’s a hard, harsh ruler. They hate him and rage against his rule – the only difference is that they do this secretly, claiming the title of Christian while inwardly hating their King.

 

Why the rage? Because when you think that the means of grace are something you “have to” do to earn God’s favor, they stop being Gospel and become Law. Instead of being God’s work for us, they become our work for God. This misunderstanding of the means of grace is the most common reason people don’t come to church regularly. They don’t see an opportunity to receive forgiveness and mercy, they see nothing but burdens and laws and rules. They don’t see a Lord who says come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28), but a harsh taskmaster who expects them to “pay their dues.” There is hardly a greater blasphemy than believing that Jesus invites us to worship to earn his favor rather than to give us his grace and forgiveness.

 

The good news is that this calm will eventually come to an end. Eventually, according to this parable, Judgment Day will come and everything will be made right. People who have been pretending to be servants of Jesus but who really have buried or neglected the means of grace will be exposed as the hypocrites they are. Even what [they] have will be taken from them. And on Judgment Day, Jesus enemies, even the really nice ones who think that all religions lead to heaven will be slaughtered right in front of him. The punishment is so harsh because their sin is so terrible. Regarding the God who loved the world so much that he suffered, bled, and died to redeem it as a wicked ruler deserves instant judgment.

 

But here’s the really good news – when Judgment Day arrives not only will hypocrites be exposed and Christ’s enemies slaughtered, but his means of grace will be proven to be as powerful as Jesus said they are and their faithful use will be rewarded beyond anything you can imagine. Notice how when the two faithful servants speak they both say your mina has earned and not “I have earned.” All the glory goes to God’s mina. It’s Baptism that saves us. It’s Absolution that forgives us. It’s Communion that feeds our faith. We don’t give them power or meaning, they give us God’s powerful grace.

 

But while we receive none of the credit, we will receive the reward. I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given. This is the real reason to put Jesus’ treasure to work, to eagerly and faithfully receive his grace in Word and Sacrament. In the parable, faithful use of one mina leads to a 1000% and 500% return, respectively. When Jesus returns, he is promising to reward faithful use of his gifts of grace with even more grace. Grace upon grace (John 1:16 EHV). I don’t know what could be better than full and free forgiveness of sins and the sure hope of eternal life – but it’s got to be good. Well worth eagerly and actively waiting for.

 

We are living in the calm before Judgment. It’s a time to be busy carrying out the work Jesus has given us. Jesus didn’t tell this parable so that we would shudder in fear of Judgment, but to make faithful use of his Gospel and Sacraments during this life – not because we have to to earn his favor, but because he promises more where that came from when he returns. Therefore our prayer today and every day is: Come, Lord Jesus (Revelation 22:20) Amen. 

Romans 3:19-28 - The Source of Salvation - November 3, 2019

Today we celebrate the 502nd anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. I looked, but I couldn’t find a prescribed way to celebrate the 502nd anniversary of the Reformation. But that’s not important. What is important is what you think the Reformation and our commemoration of it is all about. What do you think the Reformation is about? How a lowly German monk spoke truth to power – like a certain civil rights leader who assumed his name? How it’s important to stand by your convictions, no matter the cost? Or perhaps today is the day Lutherans pat ourselves on the back and brag about how we have it all right and everyone else is wrong. If our commemoration of the Reformation were about any of those things, we would be better off not doing it. But the Lutheran Reformation was about much more than social justice or moral convictions or denominational distinctions – the Lutheran Reformation was all about saving souls by clearly identifying and maintaining the source of salvation.

 

What is the source of salvation? Your salvation. It doesn’t get more important than that, does it? When you close your eyes at night, when you are lying on your deathbed, how can you be certain you will be saved if you don’t wake up? Some point to their repentance. You’re a sinner and in order to get rid of those sins and be saved you must repent. There’s no arguing with that first part. Paul declares that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable. Like it or not, by virtue of birth in this world we are under God’s Law; and the verdict isn’t pretty: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

 

I fall short of God’s glory every single day and so do you – and so repentance is a daily necessity. This was one of issues at the heart of the Reformation. In the first of his 95 Theses Luther wrote: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” [1] He wrote this because the Roman Catholic Church of his time was teaching people that they could skip repentance by purchasing an indulgence – a piece of paper that promised release from punishment. They taught this even though the Bible testifies that all the money in the world can’t pay for a single sin (Psalm 49:8; 1 Peter 1:18).  

 

So repentance is necessary. But is it the source of salvation? It’s rather naïve to think so, isn’t it? Think of the child, the driver, or the celebrity who gets caught doing something wrong. There will be a confession, an apology, maybe even some tears. And then it’s just human nature to do something to make up for it, to make it right. The child will promise to never do it again, the driver will swear to keep it under the speed limit, the celebrity will make a generous donation to a politically correct charity. Why? Why do all that? To escape punishment, to avoid the consequences of sin.

 

The question is: does it work? Can repentance save anyone from punishment? Can repentance save the child from a spanking, the driver from a ticket, the celebrity from losing their career? No. So can repentance save us from hell? No. Repentance cannot remove either the reality of our sin or its consequences. If you’ve ever thought that your repentance saves you, it’s probably consumed you, driven you to the brink of despair. All you can think about is how sorry you are and how you will do anything to make things right. Like Luther, you might even torture yourself, beating yourself up mentally or physically in a foolhardy attempt to pay for your sins yourself. But even a child can tell you that no matter how sincere, no matter how complete, no matter how sorry you are – repentance can’t save you from the consequences you deserve.

 

Well, if repentance can’t save us, then it must be faith, right? Isn’t that what Paul says? This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. There we have it. The righteousness we need to be found innocent on Judgment Day comes to us through faith. That’s sola fide – faith alone. We are saved by believing in Jesus.

 

Faith was another one of the issues at the heart of the Reformation. The formal response of the Roman Catholic Church to the teachings of the reformers, known as the Council of Trent, declared “If anyone saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be [cursed].” [2] Even Catholics believed that Lutherans believed they are saved by believing.

 

Are we? We had better hope not. Why? Well, do you believe enough? Saying that you believe every word in the Bible implies that you’ve read every word – have you? You know that the Bible commands us to believe some things that are pretty hard to believe, don’t you? It says that the universe was created in six normal days by God’s command (Genesis 1), that Jesus was born of a virgin (Matthew 1:34), that he physically rose from the dead (Matthew 28), that Baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21), that his true body and blood are really present in, with, and under the bread and wine on this altar (Matthew 26:26-28), and that Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead (Matthew 25:31-32) – can you honestly say that you’ve never doubted those things? Would any of us dare claim to be better believers than the man who cried I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief! (Mark 9:24) Are you willing to bet your salvation on the fact that your faith is stronger than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who all tried in their own ways to circumvent God’s plan because they didn’t believe his Word and promises (Genesis 16; Genesis 27)?

 

You might be a little confused at this point, and I wouldn’t blame you. For 500 years, Lutherans have taught sola fide, that we are saved by faith alone apart from observing the law. It’s true, we are saved by faith alone (Romans 3:28), but that’s not the whole story. The phrase “saved by faith” is really shorthand for “saved by grace through faith.” Follow Paul’s words (especially the prepositions) in Ephesians 2: It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith is the open hand through which we receive Jesus’ righteousness as our own. But faith IS NOT the cause or source of our salvation because 1) no matter how much you believe, your faith can’t remove sins and 2) our faith is never perfect. It is plagued by doubts, fears, and worries. If you’ve ever really examined your faith, you know this. You might try to pump it up by saying “I believe; I believe; I believe” but all it takes to pop that balloon is the devil’s whisper: “Do you? Really? Even the parts about Baptism really saving and Jesus’ body and blood being truly present?” Faith cannot be, and thank God, is not the source of our salvation.

 

We Lutherans do repent. We do believe. But neither is the source of our salvation. Then what is? Grace. Grace is at the heart of these verses. After Paul says those dreadful, damning words: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God he continues and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. There you have the entirety of Scripture, all of the Law and Gospel boiled down into one sentence. We have sinned and rightly deserve damnation. But instead God freely justifies us by grace in Christ.

 

The grand theme of the whole Bible, the golden thread that ties it all together, from Genesis to Revelation, is salvation by grace alone: sola gratia. And unlike repentance and faith – which are activities of God inside of us; grace is outside of us. You can’t look inside yourself to find grace. If you do you will find what Jeremiah found: the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9) You will see what Jesus saw: out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19). If you’re honest, you will confess along with Paul: I know that nothing good lives in me (Romans 7:18). Even when we are repenting and believing with everything we have, it will never be enough. Don’t believe me. Believe your own heart. Or better yet, believe Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul.

 

But God’s heart is different. Remember how Jeremiah described salvation in our Old Testament lesson? The new covenant is not about us doing anything, but rather God doing what we could not: I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34). Even though we cannot forget our sins, we cannot pay for them, we cannot erase them, God can. And he does, for Jesus’ sake – before and apart from any of our repenting or believing. That’s grace. That’s God’s undeserved, freely given, love and forgiveness.

 

Repentance and faith – no matter how sincere, can’t free you from the punishment your sins deserve. If your salvation was based on your repenting you would always have to wonder “Have I repented enough? Did I forget to confess any sins?” – which, incidentally, is the very thing that drove Luther into near despair and then deep into God’s Word. [3] The same goes for faith. If your salvation was based on your faith then you would always have to wonder “Do I believe enough? Do I really remember everything from catechism class?” Some days you might possess super-hero faith, but then your life falls to pieces or the devil whispers did God really say (Genesis 3:1) or your pastor says you should believe or do something that you don’t want to believe or do and you can’t help but wonder – “do I really believe?” But it all boils down to this. Imagine you’re lying on your death bed. You’re helpless, tubes and needles sticking out of you, doctors and nurses poking and prodding you, you can’t feed or clean yourself. At that point, do you really want to put your hope of salvation on something in you – the comprehensiveness of your repentance or the heartiness of your faith? How certain of your salvation would you be, if that were the case?

 

That’s what the Reformation was really all about. That’s why, neither Paul nor Luther pointed to repentance or faith as the source of salvation. Where do they point? Jesus. Jesus is God’s grace in historical, preaching, teaching, living, dying, rising, human flesh and blood. If you want to be certain about your salvation, look to Jesus. Why? Because Jesus kept the Law perfectly in your place. He never had to repent; never once had to apologize. He didn’t fall short of God’s glory. He earned his Father’s approval by his perfect, sinless life. And he gave his perfect life to you in Baptism. And he also took care of those sins you’ve spent a lifetime repenting of. He carried them, all of them, even the ones you forgot to confess to the cross and he paid for every last one of them with his precious blood. And he gives you proof of that forgiveness right here, by giving you his true body and blood. And, perhaps the part we might tend to overlook, Jesus also believed perfectly, for you. He never doubted his Father’s Word, not even when it meant suffering starvation and temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11) or into a garden to drink the cup of God’s wrath (Matthew 26:36-46) or to a cross where his own Father turned his back on him (Matthew 27:46) – Jesus believed perfectly, right to his last breath (Luke 23:46) – and his perfect faith is now yours. Because of Jesus you can be sure of your salvation even if your repentance is spotty or your faith is weak – because he took away your sin and gave you his righteousness. He – not Martin Luther, not the denomination named after him, not your repentance or your faith – he – God’s grace in the flesh – is the source of salvation.

 

That’s why Paul says that boasting is excluded. We cannot take credit for our salvation because our salvation is not in our hands. It’s in the heart of God and the bloody, outstretched hands of Jesus on a cross. And that’s a good thing. It means that your salvation is secure. And if you believe that, then you should celebrate today, because you are a Lutheran, an heir of the Reformation. Amen.  


[1] LW 31:23

[2] http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch6.htm

[3] Kittleson, James M. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2003) 84

Luke 17:1-10 - The Right Combination - October 27, 2019

“The right combination.” Meteorologists say that when atmospheric conditions are just right for a tornado or snowstorm. Sports commentators say that when in their judgment a player has the right blend of speed, strength and talent to become a superstar. You might hear it around election time, when analysts predict that there is just the “right combination” of sinking poll numbers, economic turmoil, and social unrest to replace an elected leader. But today we’re talking about something far more important than the weather, sports or politics. Today, Jesus describes having the “right combination” to be a Christian.

 

While at first glance this text may seem like a series of random, disconnected statements, there’s one thread that ties everything together: things that are (or at least seem) impossible. Its starts already in the first verse. In our translation we read: things that cause people to sin are bound to come – but a more literal translation would be it is impossible that death traps will not come. It’s impossible to avoid temptations and pitfalls in this fallen world, but we can never be their source. In fact, it would be better for you have a millstone hung around your neck and be thrown to the bottom of Lake Michigan than for you to cause one of these littles ones to sin. Some Muslim nations still cut the hands off thieves. Several states still execute capital criminals. But only mob bosses and drug lords have ever decided on drowning as a fitting punishment. Yet here, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is suggesting that just this type of cruel and unusual punishment would be better than leading another Christian to sin. Why? Because leading someone else to sin is putting their soul in danger of hell. Certainly we would be better off dead than leading someone to sin.

 

Then what should we do when sin inevitably raises its ugly head? If your brother sins, rebuke him. Such a simple, straightforward command isn’t it? If a fellow believer falls into sin, confront him firmly but gently and call him to repentance. But in a culture where it’s considered politically incorrect to question the right of anyone to do anything – rebuking sin often seems all but impossible. “What if they get mad? What if they never talk to me again? What if it ruins our relationship? It’s not my place; let someone else do it.” So that begs the question: how many of us actually obeyed Jesus’ command – even once – much less consistently? When’s the last time you called a family member – or fellow church member – to repentance? And yet, Jesus says that it’s impossible for sins not to happen, so there should to be plenty of cause for rebuking. Have you loved someone enough to rebuke them? If not, why not? More importantly, if we can’t obey this simple, straightforward command, can we really consider ourselves to be Christians?

 

And we haven’t even gotten to the really hard part yet. Rebuking sin is only a preliminary, preparatory duty. Just as God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17) so our primary duty as Christians is to forgive. And Jesus makes this duty very personal: if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him. (It’s interesting to note that whereas rebuke him is a command, forgive him is in the indicative, it’s a promise. When a brother sins against you seven times in one day and all he does is come to you and say “I repent; forgive me” you will, every time.) Again, in a world that loves to dredge up sins from the past and use them to damage careers and reputations today, where holding on to rage seems like a political virtue, where marriages and families and churches are regularly destroyed by the refusal to forgive even once – this sounds impossible. The more cynical part of us might suggest that Jesus must not know what it’s like to be married or to have children or belong to a church with other sinners. If we’re honest though, we might confess what Jesus is commanding is beyond our ability.

 

And we’re not alone. The apostles recognized how impossible these commands were. They realized that the duties of discipleship required something they didn’t think they had enough of: not clarity, not direction, but faith. They realized – and so should we – that it takes great faith to rebuke and forgive. So they say increase our faith. “Lord, you must increase our faith if we’re to do this!” And how did Jesus respond to this request? “You have enough faith.” If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you. Mulberry trees are troublesome. They have massive root systems. There is as much mulberry tree below the surface as there is above. It’s hard enough to get rid of a mulberry tree, much less plant it in the sea. It’s impossible. But Jesus is saying that if faith the size of a mustard seed can accomplish this impossible task – then faith the size of a mustard seed is more than enough to enable us to carry out our duties of rebuking and forgiving sin. Then why does it still feel so impossible to do what Jesus asks? Why does discipleship seem relatively easy when all we have to do is show up and sit down on Sunday mornings – but impossibly difficult when it comes to properly dealing with sin?

 

Clearly, Jesus’ point is that it’s not impossible. Maybe a better way to describe it would be “unnatural.” Not causing people to sin, rebuking others when they sin, and forgiving sins against us only appears impossible because it seems so unnatural. An example from recent headlines bears this out. If you happened to see any of the coverage of the sentencing phase of the trial of Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed a man in his own apartment, you saw a rare and unnatural scene: the victim’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, forgave Amber from the stand and then asked for permission to step down from the stand to give her a hug. Needless to say, even the usually heartless media was struck by this unexpected demonstration of grace and forgiveness. Why? Because it was so unnatural. Because demonstrations and protests are the way people deal with sin today, not grace and forgiveness.

 

Why does it seem so unnatural and nearly impossible to deal with sin the way Jesus commands? Because we often do what the apostles did: we try to measure our faith. We try to measure if we have the strength, the courage and boldness to do what Jesus commands – and if we feel that we’re short, we use that weakness to justify our failure. That’s a problem. Not a lack of faith problem, but a focus of faith problem. Here’s where Jesus’ little illustration of the mulberry tree applies. His point is that even small faith in the almighty Word of God can do impossible and unnatural things. If God’s Word commanded you to uproot and replant a mulberry tree, you could do it. But God’s Word doesn’t command or promise anything about mulberry trees. It does, however, clearly and frequently, command us to rebuke sin and promise that we will forgive it.

Do you have that kind of faith? The mustard seed size kind of faith that dutifully rebukes and forgives sin simply because God’s Word commands and promises it? No, I don’t either. That’s because discipleship is like a combination lock: two numbers are never enough. You need at least three. Jesus has covered two parts: duty and faith. There’s one more thing needed for the right combination, and that’s grace. That’s where his little parable about plowing, shepherding, and serving comes in. (Worthy of note is the fact that the Bible will later use plowing (1 Corinthians 3:6), herding sheep (1 Peter 5:2), and serving (2 Corinthians 3:6) to describe the work he will give the apostles.) The parable teaches that the only way we can do the impossible, unnatural things Jesus is commanding is by God’s grace.

 

Wait a minute…where is that in this parable? If we could all read Greek we would see this. In verse 9 Jesus literally asks “he would not give grace (χάριν) the servant because he did what he was told, would he?” By the way Jesus asks the question he’s expecting a “no” answer. No, a master doesn’t give grace to his slave because he does what he’s been told. That’s both unnatural and impossible. You can’t get grace by doing anything – if you could, it wouldn’t be grace (Romans 11:6).

 

So follow Jesus’ line of logic here: faith is needed to carry out your unnatural and impossible duties as a Christian, but where does faith come from? Grace! And where does grace come from? Grace comes from God, not from you. Look for it inside yourself, look for it in the worthiness of the person or in your thoughts and feelings and you won’t find the grace, the fuel, to do what you’ve been commanded. Grace can only be received from the outside. You can’t merit grace; you can’t win it; you can’t deserve it. At the end of the day, even if you imagine that you’ve done everything God commanded, you couldn’t say you deserve grace.

 

I said a couple weeks ago that you can often find the Gospel in the part of the parable that seems “off”, that doesn’t seem right, that doesn’t make sense. The Gospel in this parable is that God shatters all the norms of a servant / master relationship. God does what no earthly master ever would. He gives us grace even though we haven’t done what we’ve been told. That’s the part that doesn’t make sense. We don’t do even the small things we’re supposed to do as Christians, and yet, God is still gracious to us. Why? There’s an acronym that tells you everything you need to know about grace: Grace Received At Christ’s Expense. God gives you grace only because of Jesus. He’s the only One who always did what his Father commanded him to do. He never rolled his eyes, never muttered in protest, never argued that it was impossible – he never once failed to rebuke or forgive sin, and he certainly never caused anyone else to sin. He was the perfect person, the perfect disciple. And what was his reward? It was even worse than death by drowning – his reward was death on a cross. God didn’t hang a millstone around his neck – but he did hang all of our sins, every last one of our failures to do duty on him. That weight didn’t drag him to the bottom of the sea, but it did drag him into the depths of hell – where God held him until he had satisfied his righteous wrath. But when he said it is finished (John 19:30), it was. Jesus had drained every last ounce of God’s wrath against us (Romans 8:1) – so that all that’s left in his heart for us now is simple, beautiful, undeserved grace. That’s why, I can say without hesitation that whether you have been dutiful or disobedient, whether your faith is the size of a mountain or a mustard seed, the only thing God has for you is rich, boundless, impossible grace.

 

Doing our duty as disciples is impossible. It’s impossible for us to perfectly rebuke and forgive sin – no matter how big we think our faith is. But, we can be unworthy, can’t we? And when we confess that we are unworthy servants then we’re right where God wants us. That’s why we call the main things we do in church the means of grace. Baptism is grace poured out on infants who can do absolutely nothing for God. Absolution is the grace of forgiveness applied to self-confessed, guilty sinners. Communion is the gift of Jesus’ own body and blood offered to sinners who can never be worthy to receive them. You can’t deserve to be baptized, absolved, or communed. And yet, through these instruments, God gives you his grace for Jesus’ sake.

 

So I’ll ask one more time, do you have what it takes to be a disciple, do you have the right combination? Note well what Jesus does and doesn’t command us in this text. He is not commanding us to plant mulberry trees anywhere, but he does command us to rebuke and forgive sin; and he does command us to say we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty. That’s a confession you can live with and, more importantly, die with, because it is the most basic confession of faith: that we can be disciples by God’s grace and not by our own effort. While our efforts will always fall short, God’s grace in Christ never does. You have God’s grace, and with that gift, you do have the right combination, just what you need to do the impossible and unnatural, to be and remain and do the duties of a Christian. Amen.  

Luke 16:19-31 - Four Myths from Beyond the Grave - October 20, 2019

I don’t believe it’s on TV anymore – but there used to be a show on The Discovery Channel called Mythbusters. The name says it all. The hosts would take a myth, an old wives’ tale, an urban legend and put it to the test using scientific methods. For example, they tested the Hollywood theory that a car can break through a locked chain link fence (it can), whether elephants are really afraid of mice or not (they really don’t like having them around!), and last but not least, whether it’s actually possible to take someone’s hat off with a bullet – like you see in the Westerns – (yes, but with the caveat that you tend to also put a decent sized hole in the person’s head, too!). Whether or not such a show interests you, the premise is undeniably true: you can’t believe everything you see. While most urban legends are fairly harmless, there are many myths regarding religion, heaven and hell floating around in our world that do real, eternal damage. Today we’re going to bust four of those myths – not with science – but the inerrant Word of God.

 

Myth #1: everyone goes to heaven. Let’s face it, most people believe that – apart from terrorists and pedophiles – virtually goes to heaven when they die. The generic, American religion teaches that there is life after this one, it’s better than life here and all but the worst people go there. That’s why when someone dies you don’t ever hear “well, they died in unbelief, and now their suffering has just begun” – no, you always hear, “now they’re at peace,” “now their suffering is over,” “they are in a better place.”

 

But it’s a myth, as Jesus demonstrates in this story. (Incidentally, despite the fact that this is often labeled a parable, it’s probably not. A parable is an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. Here, while Jesus does speak in earthly terms – the spiritual meaning is not at all hidden.) Not everyone goes to heaven; some, like the rich man, are in agony in the fire of hell. What’s striking is that it’s Jesus who is giving us this awful description of hell. Most people think that Jesus is too nice, too tolerant, too loving to send people to hell for all eternity. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus talks about hell more often and in more vivid language than anyone else in the Bible. Here he describes hell as a place of torment, where people burn alive without any hope of death, a state of permanent separation from God and his love. Of course, he’s using earthly language to describe the horrors, but his point is clear: it’s a myth that all people (like all dogs) go to heaven. Some don’t. Some go to hell forever.

 

Myth #2: outward appearances matter; that you can tell where a person will end up simply by looking at them. The false belief that prevailed in Jesus’ day still survives today – and it sounds like this: if you’re happy, healthy, and wealthy God loves you, and if you’re not, he’s angry at you; wealth equals God’s favor and poverty equals his wrath. And, if you are blessed in this life it’s almost guaranteed that you will be blessed in the next life, because we all know that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

 

Jesus seems to be playing off this myth as he describes two men whose circumstances couldn’t have been more different. At a time when people rarely ate meat the rich man enjoyed a 5-star dinner daily – while Lazarus’ stomach ached for the crumbs that fell from his table. While the rich man dressed in purple and fine linen – which, incidentally, served no practical purpose other than to broadcast how rich you were – Lazarus’ body was only covered in sores. Lazarus died like a beggar. No mention of a funeral. His corpse was probably unceremoniously tossed into the same mass grave as countless other beggars. But the rich man was buried. Ever been to a rich person’s funeral? Flowers upon flowers upon flowers – always with a little card so that the family knows just who to give the credit to. People fall over themselves to make themselves seen and heard at the funeral of a rich person. Even pastors, for some reason, often feel indebted to talk more about the rich, dead person in the sermon than Jesus Christ. Which of the two would you think would end up in heaven?

 

But then Jesus pulls back the curtain to let us see what’s really going on. What was the most notable thing about Lazarus? Not that he was a beggar – that was common – but he has a name! For the one and only time Jesus names one of the characters in his stories – and that name tells us everything we need to know. Lazarus comes from the Hebrew Eleazar which means God is my help. The rich man may not have helped Lazarus, but God did and wrote his name in the book of life (Revelation 20:12). The rich man, on the other hand remains anonymous, for the damned are not known by God (Matthew 7:23). Second, God dispatches angels to carry the Lazarus’ filthy, sore-covered body to heaven. No angels are sent to fetch the rich man because the damned need no help getting to hell. Finally, Lazarus finds eternal peace and rest at Abraham’s side while the rich man winds up screaming his lungs out in the never-ending torments of hell. Certainly appearances can be deceiving.

 

There’s a warning here for us. Don’t think that you can tell who will go where based on outward appearances. Stop thinking that wealth equals heaven and poverty equals hell – or that poverty equals heaven and wealth equals hell. To use a crass example: stop thinking that if a drunk driver kills himself he’s going to hell or that the person he kills is automatically going to heaven. Stop judging God by your or anyone else’s outward circumstances. Because the fact is that outward appearances can be deceiving.

 

Myth #3: church is no big deal. You might be thinking – where did this come from? This is just pastor justifying his existence and his job. No. One myth that is very popular among many Christians – and which, has sadly seeped into Lutheranism – is a mystical doctrine of faith. It’s the idea that we can find God in our feelings and emotions, that he comes to us directly. And so when seeking certainty for their salvation, people are directed to look inside themselves. “Is your faith strong? Have you felt God’s touch or heard his voice?” Or someone will say “I felt God’s presence in that sunrise. God spoke to me in that movie.” Do you ever hear that? I do. When people find out I’m a pastor they often feel the need to justify themselves and sometimes say “Oh, well I think about God all the time.” When I contact members who don’t come to church the very first thing they say is “Don’t worry pastor, my faith is strong!” The problem is that as a result of sin we are already turned in on ourselves far too much. By nature we are self-centered rather than God-centered. But the fact is that a mystical, baseless faith is no faith at all; it’s faith in faith and faith in faith doesn’t save anyone.

Where do we see this in our story? Well, why did the rich man go to hell? Many people believe it was because the rich man was a jerk to Lazarus, he didn’t share any of his wealth or food with him to help him. But the text doesn’t explicitly say that, does it? We aren’t told that the rich man spit on Lazarus, or yelled at him to get off his property. Nor are we told that the rich man went to hell for any number of other obvious sins; that he was a murderer, had committed adultery, got his wealth fraudulently, or that he was guilty of giving false testimony. In fact, we are probably safe in assuming that he was a Jew in good standing from the fact that he called Abraham Father. No, the only sin specifically named in this lesson is a sin against the third commandment: not [listening] to Moses and the prophets. In other words, while this rich man may have received a Jewish burial, he apparently never made it a priority to listen to Moses and the prophets, that is, the Word of God, preached and taught.

 

Now please don’t misunderstand. Faith in Christ certainly does save because faith is the open hand that receives the forgiveness, life and salvation that he won on the cross (Ephesians 2:8-9). But don’t for a second believe that this faith can exist apart from hearing the Word of God. Faith can no more live in the heart apart from the Word than your body can live apart from eating food (John 6:53). Going to church is important because church tears your attention away from yourself, your feelings, your circumstances and places it on the Word and Sacraments. And you might say: “I read my bible at home,” “I pray.” Good, I hope you do. But the Bible teaches that faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Not to mention that God hasn’t given the sacraments to us as individuals but to the Church. Faith is a miracle but God has decided to not create or sustain it mystically but through totally ordinary means: water and Word, bread and wine.

 

And, if you’ve ever wondered about your faith, that’s great news. Why? Because it means you don’t have to search for God in your heart or the world around you. Instead you can find him in the clear, objective means he has given us. Were you baptized? Then your name is written in the book of life (1 Peter 3:21). Were your sins forgiven moments ago in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? Then the gates of heaven are open to you (Matthew 16:19). Will you be eating and drinking Jesus’ true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins? Then God is strengthening your faith in Jesus, whether you feel it or not (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) Church is important because church is where the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered. The rich man went to hell not because he neglected Lazarus but because he neglected the means of grace.

 

Now I know where that last myth leads many of you. You worry about the people you love who also neglect and despise Word and Sacrament. You wonder “if they die like that rich man, what’s going to happen to them?” You want them to be saved so badly that you run the risk of falling for myth #4, of believing that if only God would just do something miraculous in their life, they would repent. That’s the fourth myth from hell we have to bust: miracles convert people. Even in hell the rich man still labors under this myth. He’s concerned about the fate of his brothers who apparently were accustomed to despising the Word just like he was. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn them. He thinks like a whole horde of Christians do today: that you need more than the Gospel to save people – you need gimmicks and programs and emotional music and practical sermons.

 

Is that true? No. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Abraham. Abraham states point blank that if they reject the Word of God, even if Lazarus were to suddenly show up on their doorstep and shouted “Hell is Real!” they wouldn’t even be convinced – that is, convinced that they weren’t hallucinating or dreaming. Miracles don’t convert people. There are plenty of miracles recorded in the Bible: 6-day creation, the Flood, Jesus walking on water – but most people in our scientific age regard these miracles as myths. Even more, Jesus did raise another Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38-44) and it only made the Jews more determined to kill Jesus (John 11:45-57). And when Jesus rose from the dead, they paid the soldiers to keep it quiet rather than repent and believe (Matthew 28:11-15).

 

Don’t fall for the myth. Don’t think that God isn’t doing everything possible to save the people you love. He is. He’s still sending his same powerful, faith-creating Word to every corner of the earth. The same Word that created the universe (Genesis 1), changed a murderous Pharisee like Saul into the missionary named Paul (Acts 9), that calmed stormy seas (Luke 8:22-25) and fed thousands (John 6:1-15) – is still being proclaimed. God is still working the extraordinary miracle of repentance through the completely ordinary Word. And you have this Word. The Word of God spoken by you to people you love is far more powerful than any miracle – even someone rising from the dead – because miracles don’t change hearts – the Word of God does.

 

Hell is no myth. Jesus has busted that myth. People do go there. But no one has to. The gates of heaven are open today for the rich, the poor, the obviously sinful and the secretly guilty. No one is so good that they can get into heaven without hearing the Word of God, but no one is so bad that the forgiving Word of God can’t bring them to repentance and faith. Mythbusters bust myths in order to entertain. Jesus busts myths in order to save souls. Don’t believe the myths. Believe the Words of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). Amen.

Luke 16:1-5 - The Bottom Line - October 13, 2019

Today we’re going to talk about Money. I know…nobody wants to talk about money – especially at church. Church is supposed to be for “spiritual stuff.” But today we can’t escape it – Jesus doesn’t give us a choice. In addition, Money is very spiritual. Why? Most simply because all Money belongs to God. But that’s not the only reason. It’s no secret that Money is one of the most important things in our lives. It keeps us busy during the day and awake at night. It guides our choices and decisions. As Paul made clear, the love of Money lies at the root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The love of Money has destroyed marriages and families and churches and led people to wander from the faith. Humanly speaking, it’s hard to argue with Oscar Wilde’s assessment: “When I was young, I thought money was the most important thing in life; now that I’m old, I know it is.” [1] Today we’re going to talk about Money, but not in the way you think. We’re going to get right to the Bottom Line. What’s the bottom line? You cannot serve both God and Money.

 

First, I want to make sure that you heard this right. Jesus isn’t giving a command. He didn’t say “do not serve both God and Money.” He’s stating a fact: “You cannot serve both God and Money.” It’s not a choice but an impossibility. The only question is: which do you serve? Here’s the lesson we all need to learn – sooner than later – about Money. It’s a merciless master. No, it doesn’t appear that way, at least not at first. Money looks like those glamorous celebrities selling the newest credit card that gives you all kinds of free miles and cash back, like a well-dressed investment advisor who guarantees to make your money work for you, like the dream job with the dream salary that promises to make all your material goals come true. But that’s only half the story. The dark side is that when you don’t make your payments on time, you don’t get any miles but you do get an astronomical interest rate. The investment advisor can’t do much for you unless you regularly give him large sums of money to work with. The dream job may leave out the fact that receiving this salary will demand your heart and mind, your body and soul. Stick around for the quarterly meeting and you’ll see that even in the church, the laws of money can’t be broken. What goes out must first come in. Every penny must be accounted for. Budgets can’t be balanced by faith alone. Money is merciless.

 

Why? Because Money is a matter of the Law. And because Money is a matter of the Law we can always, always be accused of mismanaging it. We see that in our parable. The manager was only accused of wasting [his master’s] possessions. We aren’t provided with any evidence and the parable doesn’t even state whether he was actually guilty or not. It simply shows how easy it is for the Money to make accusations.

 

Allow me to conduct an experiment to prove this. Just see how easy it is for me to make you feel guilty by merely questioning your spending habits; without a shred of proof. The average American spends 5% of their income on entertainment and the average WELS member gives 2.5% of their income in offerings. Where do you stand? What does that reveal about who or what has first place in your heart? Or how about this: did you know that if you saved just $20 a week – by eating out one less time, by making your own coffee instead of stopping at Starbucks, or however – you’d have an additional $1000 each year to give to God? We live in relatively nice homes, drive nice cars and take nice vacations. Just imagine if, instead of spending those thousands of dollars on ourselves, how many missionaries could be sent, how many churches could be funded, how many pastors could be trained. See. I have no proof that you’ve mismanaged your money, yet you’re squirming anyway. But that’s not even the point. The point is that no matter how you spend your money, no matter how frugal you are, no matter how much you give, you could still be accused of fiscal mismanagement. Money is a merciless master because serving Money is slavery to the Law.

 

Sadly, if we’ve never thought of Money that way, as a merciless idol, it’s probably because of the church. At some point the church decided that it could help people navigate the impossibly narrow road between serving God and Money; teaching that there is a way to find peace in money management, that you can serve both at the same time. You’ve heard the sermons, right? “God commanded his OT people to give 10% of their income and if you do too, then you’re off the hook.” “If you just prioritize your spending in this order: 1) Church; 2) Family; 3) Taxes; 4) Charity – then you can relax, you’re good.” In general, the impression is given that as long as you give God his cut, as long as you serve Money under God’s rules, it’s ok. Then nobody can accuse you.

 

But it’s a lie. Money management is part of the Law and the Law’s purpose is not to give us peace of mind but to cause us to sweat and squirm by revealing our sins (Romans 3:20). You can’t stand before God’s all-seeing eye audit and be found innocent based on your money management no matter how you’ve spent your money. (For example: you could sell everything you own, clear out all your savings and give it to God, and you still wouldn’t be justified. Why? Because all you would be able to think about is how much you would like it back!) If you think you can satisfy God’s justice by the way you manage your Money, then you need to remember that the greatest sin of all is called “self-righteousness.” If you hope to stand before God and say “I’ve given enough, spent my money wisely, never wasted it, spent every penny perfectly,” then you’ve placed your hope for salvation in yourself. You are lost now and will be damned on the Last Day. But, you may ask, what’s the alternative? If I admit that no matter how much money I make I’m not content; that my giving is often motivated by self-righteousness; that financial worries keep me up at night – then I have to live in perpetual fear of God’s final audit. See what I mean about Money being merciless? Do whatever you want with it: keep it, save it, invest it, spend it, give it, burn it – it will never justify you before God.

 

So what’s the answer? How do you escape Money’s tyrannical hold on your heart and life? Through repentance. By repenting of ever giving Money the place in your heart and life that belongs to God alone. Money is an inanimate object; it is not God; it cannot accuse you; it cannot damn you; it cannot forgive you; it cannot justify you. Recognize that Money is merciless and in the end, powerless, because it is an idol.

So what’s the good news? Here’s where I’m supposed to say that the good news is that Jesus died to free us from our slavery to Money so that we can now serve the Lord with our Money – and then send the offering plates shooting down the rows. After all, that’s how the Church is often portrayed, isn’t it? God needs us to come here so that he can get our money and our time and our energy in order to make his Kingdom come. Is that true? Does God need anything from us to carry out his will? Is God angry with us until we give him a few bucks to get him off our backs? Do you understand how arrogant it is to suggest that God’s grace depends on something we do, that God needs our help to accomplish his mission? God didn’t have much patience for that kind of arrogance in either the Old or New Testaments. In Malachi God begged someone to close the doors of the Temple so that the priests would stop offering their sacrifices – because they thought that by merely going through the motions they were going to win God’s favor (Malachi 1:10). Paul told the idolaters in Athens point blank that [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything (Acts 17:25).

 

So what’s the real bottom line, then? Remember that Jesus told parables to teach spiritual truths, not moral behavior – or here, proper money management. In parables, earthly things stand for heavenly things. So the point of comparison is not between the right and the wrong way to spend Money, but between the shrewdness with which unbelievers use the means at their disposal to give themselves comfortable lives in this world and how believers, the people of the light, use true riches to ensure their eternity. This interpretation is confirmed by the last two verses: The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. The Pharisees thought that if they could just figure out the right equation for serving God with their Money, they could justify themselves and earn eternal life. They sneered when Jesus definitively declared that it’s impossible to serve God and Money.

 

So where’s the real good news? Having studied parables over the past several weeks, one helpful hint I’ve found is to look for the part of the earthly story that doesn’t quite seem right, that seems odd or out of place. Is there anything like that in this parable? Wasn’t this master pretty stupid for a rich guy? He heard that his manager was wasting his possessions, but he didn’t immediately have him thrown in jail. He allowed him to go free to settle his accounts. It doesn’t work that way today. If you get yourself fired, security tosses your stuff into a box, walks you to your car and your access to anything financial is immediately cut off. That’s how things normally go. In fact, spiritually speaking, that’s how it should go for us. When we leave here with God’s forgiveness and continue to feel guilt and shame over past sins, when we fail to be strengthened in faith by the Sacrament, when we hear God’s promise to provide our daily bread but continue to lay awake at night worrying about money – we are wasting the true riches God has given us. We deserve to have them taken away. But God doesn’t do that. Like the master in the parable, our Lord lets us go free, demonstrating an almost foolish level of mercy to us.

 

And our only hope for passing God’s final audit is that he will remain merciful. That was the only hope of the shrewd servant, too. And so, far from suddenly toeing the line, he doubled down on spending his master’s money to secure his own future. And how does the master respond? [He] commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. This manager had forced his master into a corner: either drag his former manager in for punishment and then demand the full amount from his debtors – and be known as a tyrant – or allow his manager’s actions to stand and be known throughout the community as a merciful and gracious lord. Of course, the punchline is that it will cost him a significant percentage of his revenue to be seen as merciful. But apparently, he figured that this loss to his bottom line was worth it to maintain his reputation.

 

Here’s the thing about mercy: it doesn’t cost the recipient anything, but it costs the giver dearly. The master in the parable had to suffer a significant financial loss to be merciful. God is merciful and he will continue to be merciful to us, but it came at a steep price. It didn’t cost him 20% or 50% but 100% of his only beloved Son. Rather than send us to destruction, he sent his Son to earth. Rather than demand a perfect, flawless life from us, he demanded a perfect life from his Son. Rather than demand that we maintain hearts free from greed and covetousness – which we could never do – to earn heaven – the LORD demanded that his Son be content to live in poverty for 33 years on this earth. Rather than send us to hell to pay off our debts, the LORD sent his Son to the cross to pay our debts in our place. The LORD, your real master, would rather suffer loss himself and be merciful than be just and lose you forever in hell. So be shrewd – serve him by relying on his mercy – trust his Word with all your heart, live in his forgiveness, let your heart rest in his peace.

 

This parable isn’t really about how to spend your Money but about who your Master is. The manager in the parable was commended because he knew his master’s mercy and shrewdly spent his master’s money to ensure his future. How much more should we freely use and spend the true riches God has given us – the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – the only wealth which can secure us a place in eternal dwellings. I know this hasn’t been your typical “money” sermon, but here’s the bottom line: You cannot serve both God and Money. Money is merciless – the best it can do is buy a nice piece of ground to put your body in; but God, God would rather suffer the loss of his Son than lose you – that’s a merciful Master, that’s the only Master worth serving. Amen. 


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5nxMx7d1K8S6nhjkPBFhHSM/withering-wit-and-words-of-wisdom-oscar-wildes-best-quotes

Luke 15:1-10 - This Man Welcomes Sinners - October 6, 2019

You may have noticed a trend over the past several weeks – that our sermon texts have all dealt with Jesus’ parables: his earthly stories with spiritual meanings. Parables aren’t what they seem to be. Just as the parable two weeks ago wasn’t really about dinner parties and last week’s wasn’t about how to build a tower or go to war – so the parable this morning isn’t really about how to find lost sheep and coins. Then what is this parable about? What spiritual truth is Jesus teaching us? Sadly, too many preachers see parables as an opportunity to serve their own agendas. For example, if you’re trying to raise money, you could talk about how precious even one coin is to God. Or, even more popular, is the notion that these parables are Jesus’ commission to the Church. That we are the shepherd and the woman and that it is our responsibility to get out there and beat the bushes and find the lost and save them. Now, I’m not saying that the Bible doesn’t say anything about stewardship or outreach; but the context should make it crystal clear that Jesus is not talking about those things here. This parable is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ grumbling complaint: this man welcomes sinners.

 

Clearly then, this parable is about the seeking, searching, tireless love of Jesus. He is the main character. But how do we get there? Well, in context of Luke 15, the “lost” are the tax collectors and “sinners” who were flocking to Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus made a habit of welcoming and associating with these social and religious outcasts. He even called one of those hated tax collectors – Matthew – to be his apostle (Matthew 9:9-13). And later in this same gospel, he invited himself to the home of another tax collector named Zacchaeus where he declared that the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). As the Good Shepherd, as the Creator and Redeemer of these poor souls, it was only natural for Jesus see them as precious and go out of his way to find and save them.  

 

But Jesus’ natural love for the lost filled the religious elite with disgust. The Pharisees and teachers of the law – who were supposed to be the spiritual shepherds of God’s flock on earth – didn’t care at all about the lost. They didn’t preach about God’s grace but his wrath; they emphasized Law not Gospel. Their message was inherently work-righteous: that you need to clean yourself up, stop sinning and reform your life before God will accept you. They despised and ignored these poor, lost sinners; figuring that they were simply getting what they deserved. In fact, the Jewish historian Alfred Edersheim even records a shocking saying of the Pharisees: “There is joy before God when those who provoke him perish from the world.” [1] It’s hard to imagine a greater blasphemy than alleging that heaven rejoices when the wicked perish in hell. (Ezekiel 33:11)

 

In this parable, then, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law are the ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. It’s not that they didn’t need to repent, they – like everyone else on earth – had fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23) – they didn’t think they did. They thought they were right with God because outwardly they were better and holier than these open sinners. The real tragedy in this text is not that Jesus was associating with open sinners but that these self-righteous Pharisees didn’t see their need to join them!

 

Jesus drives this point home by asking the crowd to consider two familiar situations: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? What shepherd wouldn’t abandon his flock to search for one wandering sheep? Here’s the twist: no good shepherd would do that! You can almost picture the shepherds in the crowd whispering to each other, “That Galilean carpenter doesn’t know bunk about shepherding! You don’t risk your entire flock to save one. You write that sheep off as dead and cut your losses.” Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? Do you put your life on hold and turn the house upside down if you lost one coin even though you still had nine in your pocket? “Well, maybe for an hour or two, but there comes a time when you forget about it and get on with your day. Maybe it will turn up later, but my time is too valuable to waste it looking for one lost coin.”

 

So what’s the point? The point is that Jesus doesn’t see people the way the religious elite did. His ways are not our ways; his thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Jesus didn’t come to earth to seek out the good, the righteous, the powerful – those who appear to have their lives together, the good who are getting better, he came to seek out the weak, the sick, the lost. He doesn’t weigh the cost vs. benefit of abandoning the flock to seek out just one lost sheep. Again, this parable is not really about shepherding, financial stewardship, or even outreach. It’s about Jesus’ irrational, outrageous grace that seeks and saves the lost without regard to the cost or the logic. He seeks those who don’t want to be found. He loves the ungodly, the unrighteous, those who are lost in sin and cannot find any way out. He dies for sinners, not saints; for his enemies, not his friends (Romans 5:10). Jesus is the Good Shepherd who doesn’t stop searching; he’s the one who turns the whole house upside down, moves the furniture and tears up the carpets until he finds that lost coin. The lost are the sole object of his attention. Nothing else matters to him.

 

While this parable applied most directly to Jesus’ ministry to the tax collectors and “sinners” of his day, the truth of this parable transcends time and space. In a way, it takes us all the way back to Eden. The lost sheep is Adam, the representative of mankind, who brought sin and death into the world (Romans 5:12). He is the lost coin, the worthless asset in God’s bank account, the one who wasted the perfect life God intended for him, who was so lost in shame and guilt that he tried to hide behind fig leaves in the bushes. And yet, God searched for his wayward child and didn’t give up until he found him and brought him to repentance (Genesis 3). And, like it or not, we are all like Adam. We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6). We are all the lost children of God. We fall for Satan’s deceptions daily. We reach for things God doesn’t want us to have. We have strayed from the path of life and stumbled onto the wide road that leads to destruction. Left to our own devices we are and would remain lost.

 

You sense this lostness in the world around you, don’t you? You see people trying desperately to “find” themselves, to find meaning for their lives in their careers, their treasures, their accomplishments, their fame and popularity and good deeds. You can see it in the addictions and distractions mankind has invented for itself – all designed to silence the voice of conscience, to dull the ever-present drumbeat of guilt and shame and fear of future judgment. And yet, after it all, they’re still lost – because they’re still not right with God. But it’s not just out there in the world, either, is it? We feel that lostness too, don’t we? Yes, even believers feel it, perhaps more acutely because we know better: we know we should be perfect – and we’re not; our consciences agree with the Law’s verdict that we deserve pain and punishment; we know that addictions and distractions can’t really take our guilt away. Most of all, we long for the peace and safety our Father’s home but we can’t get there. And some days, we just want to sit on the ground and cry like a lost child, our lost condition leaves us depressed, despairing, weak and helpless.

 

And that’s what makes this chapter – which some have called the heart of Luke’s Gospel – so beautiful! We got ourselves lost. We have no one but ourselves to blame. Jesus would have been perfectly justified in writing us off as a lost cause, as not worth his time or effort. But he didn’t! Jesus came to our wilderness, leaving behind the righteous hosts of heaven to seek and save our lost race from sin and death. He came as the second Adam (Romans 5:19), taking on our flesh, wandering in our wilderness, suffering our temptation, dying our death. He lost himself, his blood, his life to find us. To be clear: Jesus found us, not the other way around. He wasn’t lost, we were. Jesus didn’t come to earth to be welcomed by righteous and powerful leaders, he came to dig through the gutters and search through the trash to find his sheep who didn’t even know they were lost. So great was his love for us that he didn’t care what condition we were in when he found us. He wasn’t worried about what he could gain or benefit from us. He didn’t wait for us to meet him halfway, to make a decision for him, to shape up and straighten up our lives before he would welcome us. He found us like Hosea’s harlot and loved us anyway (Hosea 3:1). He found us in the filth of our sin and brought us to his house to clean us up with his forgiveness. He searched for us with his Word and Sacrament before we even knew we were lost; often, when we didn’t even want to be found. And every time Jesus finds another lost sinner all of heaven rejoices over the ridiculous, irrational, outrageous love of a Good Shepherd who loses himself to find the lost.   

 

Which leads to our final question: what does it mean to be “found,” what is it that causes the angels in heaven to rejoice? Is it your commitment to living for God? Is it when you bring him a generous offering? When you do good and avoid evil? That’s not what Jesus says. He says there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. We don’t see it in translation, but in the original Greek repents is a present participle – which means that heaven rejoices when sinners are continually repenting, repeatedly coming to Jesus for forgiveness and peace. Here, it’s not your good works that give joy to God but the confession of your sins. But that all sounds backwards, doesn’t it? What is more pleased with a child when they confess that they broke the lamp than when they report that they’ve done their homework and cleaned their room? Again, Jesus doesn’t see things the way we do. Heaven rejoices when we come regularly and repeatedly to lay our sins at Jesus’ feet because that’s why he came. As Paul says Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) – NOT those who think they have done enough, served enough, given enough to please God on their own. There are no parties in heaven for the proud and self-righteous who don’t think they need to be in God’s house to receive his forgiveness. Jesus didn’t come for them. He came for sinners.

 

And so, if you heard this text and figured that this parable is about the people out there who don’t go to church, or perhaps a member who hasn’t been here in some time, you still don’t understand. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: Jesus’ parables often invite us to find ourselves in them. Where do you and I fit? Are we the owner of the sheep and coins? No, Jesus claims that role for himself. This text is not about us seeking and finding the lost! Are you the lost sheep and the lost coin? You might not want to think of yourself as lost – but here’s the thing – if you don’t see yourself as the lost sheep and coin, there’s only one role left. Then you’re one of the ninety-nine righteous persons who don’t think they need to repent. If that describes you, then I have only bad news for you: you’re still lost, you’re still in the wilderness. If you’ve become so comfortable in yourself, your goodness, your lifestyle compared to others that you don’t think you need to repent, then you’re no different than those Pharisees sneering at the tax collectors and sinners. If you think repentance is for other people, then it’s my responsibility to warn you against coming up to this table to eat with Jesus, because the hymn was right: Jesus receives sinners, lost sheep, not self-righteous saints (CW 304).

 

It’s become fashionable in some Christian circles to teach that Christians aren’t sinners anymore and that they shouldn’t call themselves sinners. Heretics like Joyce Meyer openly declare that they are no longer sinful and that to suggest otherwise is a lie from hell. [2] They would be horrified by our confession of sins, disgusted that only confessed sinners are welcome at this table. She would say that we need to think like winners if we want to attract winners and if we keep talking about sin we will only succeed in drawing this world’s losers. The fact is that heaven doesn’t throw parties for winners, but losers; those who are eager to lose their sins in Jesus’ outrageous, irrational mercy and forgiveness. So if that’s you, a lost, despised, miserable sinner – then step forward confidently, because Jesus has fixed this meal just for you. Amen.

 


[1] Edersheim, Alfred The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (U.S.: Hendrickson Publishers) 652

[2] https://carm.org/joyce-meyer "I am not poor. I am not miserable and I am not a sinner. That is a lie from the pit of hell. That is what I were and if I still was then Jesus died in vain. I'm going to tell you something folks. I didn't stop sinning until I finally got it through my thick head I wasn't a sinner anymore. And the religious world thinks that's heresy and they want to hang you for it. But the Bible says that I am righteous and I can't be righteous and be a sinner at the same time." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dmHJdM63hk)

Luke 14:25-33 - But (Whose) Counting - September 29, 2019

“But who’s counting?” Usually you hear that phrase spoken in a sarcastic and passive aggressive tone. For example, your spouse might say, “I’ve washed the dishes five times this week to your zero…but, hey, who’s counting?” (Obviously, someone is!) Your boss may say “that’s the 3rd day in a row you’ve been late…but who’s counting?” Or one of the ladies in the kitchen back there may look at you and say “this is the fifth time you’ve come up for seconds…but who’s counting?” That’s the way this phrase is normally used: passive aggressively, to subtly expose someone’s failure. But today we’re going to steal that phrase and change it a bit. Instead of asking it passive aggressively, we’re going to ask it honestly: whose counting? The cost of discipleship needs to be counted and paid. But, who does the counting and paying for you and I to be disciples of Jesus?

 

Like last week, I will ask you today: if you were simply reading this at home, what would you understand Jesus to be saying in this lesson? What would your takeaway be? I am willing to bet that you would hear this lesson through the lens of the third use of the law. The third use of the law is as a guide – to show Christians how they ought to live out of gratitude for everything God has done for us in Christ. If you read this text through that lens, you wind up hearing Jesus saying that if you don’t hate your family, carry your cross, calculate the full cost of a lifetime of following Jesus, fight and win the battle against your spiritual enemies, and give up everything you have – and do it perfectly, you can’t be his disciple, and, obviously, you can’t be saved. If that were your takeaway this morning, would you even waste your time trying? Honestly, I’m not sure I would, because it sounds pretty impossible.  

 

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not denying the legitimacy of using God’s Law as a guide. The Bible itself establishes and validates this use. Psalm 119 says your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (Psalm 119:105). Paul was applying the Law in its third use when he appealed to Philemon to take Onesimus back as a brother in faith (Philemon 8-10). The third use of the Law is like a set of “how to” instructions. It’s like when you buy a piece of furniture from IKEA and at first you think, “Instructions, who needs instructions?” And then six hours later you finally and shamefully pick up the instructions and figure out which pieces go where. C. S. Lewis compared the third use of the Law to stepping onto a firm road surface after being bogged down in a muddy field. [1]

 

And in that sense, like a clear set of instructions or a firm place to walk, the third use of the Law does provide precious and necessary guidance and relief to Christians in this life. It lights a path through the darkness of this world. It teaches us how to live and think and act. It clearly defines right and wrong, good and evil in a world which is lost in a maze of gray areas. But because there’s a little part of us that imagines that it’s up to us to earn God’s favor – and the Bible is the ‘how-to’ guide, we are tempted to read these words that way. Here’s Jesus’ guide for discipleship: first, hate your family; then, pick up your cross and follow me. And if that’s the way you understand these words then you would rightly expect worship to be a spiritual pep rally where we chant “Onward Christian Soldiers” and the role of the sermon is to verbally smack you on the butt and tell you to get out there and win one for the gipper. For those who would have that interpretation of this text, the main objective of the Church is to tell people how to build a Christian life and how to win on the spiritual battlefield. But is that what Jesus is really saying here? No.

 

The first tip-off is in the very first verse: large crowds were following Jesus. As we learned in confirmation class, the third use of the Law is only for believers, not unbelievers. The second tip-off comes in the two parables. He’s telling potential disciples to sit down and consider whether they have what it takes before they make the commitment, not after. Jesus is not using the law in its third use but its first use. Not as a guide but as a mirror. If counting the cost of discipleship and salvation is up to you and me – then Jesus is telling us what it will cost and demanding that we examine ourselves to see if we can pay the price.  

 

So let’s be very clear: if you want to follow Jesus under your own power to heaven, this is what you must do, without fail, for a lifetime. First, if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. You must not allow anyone in your family, at any time or for any reason  come before Jesus in your life. Neither their words nor their decisions nor their lifestyles can ever lead you to doubt God’s Word, falter in your faith or fall into sin. You must fear God’s wrath more than your spouse’s rage or your child’s temper tantrum. You must love your relationship with God more than your relationship with your siblings. You must trust God’s Word more than your own wisdom, skill, experience, and emotions – when it doesn’t make sense, when it’s hard, when it’s unpopular, and yes, even when it doesn’t feel right. But that’s not even the hardest part. You must hate your own life. You must be ready and willing to sacrifice anything: your job, reputation, health, wealth – yes, even life itself if faithfulness to Jesus demands it. Sound daunting? It is. Which is why Jesus continues: anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. Today we fashion bright and shiny crosses to decorate our homes and hang around our necks. But in the Roman Empire, the cross had only one purpose: to kill. That’s Jesus’ point here. If you want to follow him you must put to death everything that belongs to your sinful flesh: your thoughts and feelings and desires and pleasures – yes even your natural affection for your family and your close attachment to your life. All of it must die. The specifics will be different for each of us, but one thing remains the same: Jesus expects you to carry this cross – without question and without complaining. So the question is: having counted that cost, are you even going to start building the tower? Are you going run onto the battlefield or surrender before the battle’s even begun? Are you capable of being Jesus’ disciple?

 

If the third use of the Law is like stepping onto solid ground, then the first use of the Law is like a knife through the heart. It kills everyone it touches. It exposes the sins in my heart and life that I would rather not see. We could read these words every day of our lives and we still wouldn’t be able to carry out these demands, would we? How many times have we determined to build a magnificent tower of a Christian life – only to realize that we don’t have the resources to complete it? That our desire to keep our words and thoughts pure goes out the window the moment we get on the Beltline or step into the office? How many times have we resolved to be different, promised to never do that again, sworn to try harder, be better, make the right decisions? How many unfinished towers are lying in ruins in our past? How many things were we “going to do” for Jesus that never even got started? And what does our record on the spiritual battlefield look like? How many times have we said that we’re not going to let the devil, the world, or the flesh trick us this time – only surrender and declare peace with them by giving in to temptation? Even more damning, how many times have I left the altar, having received the body and blood which my Savior gave up and shed for me on his cross for the forgiveness of my sins, and never really, seriously intended to amend my sinful life? How many times have we left God’s house with the sentiment of the Saint Augustine: “Lord, make good, make me obedient, make me actually live as your disciple, but not yet; not today”? [2] Yes, if I read these words as a guide, then there’s always hope for me, I can always do better tomorrow (which is why we’re drawn to that interpretation). But if I read them the way my Lord intended me to – as a mirror – all hope is dashed. Jesus can tell me “how to” be his disciple until his kingdom comes and I still wouldn’t be able to actually do it. I might be able to count the cost of discipleship, but I certainly can’t pay it.

 

So what do we do? We give up. Yes, seriously, we give up. Isn’t that what Jesus said in the last verse: any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple. (He’s not talking about your possessions, but everything, including your determination to follow Jesus and all the blood, sweat and tears you’re willing to put into discipleship – because everything you have will never be enough!) I believe the main reason so many people misread these words is that there is an altogether false definition of what it means to be a “disciple” among Christians today. The tendency is to think that a “disciple” is someone who does what Jesus commands. Is that true? If it is, who here qualifies? Who does everything that Jesus commands? No, a disciple is not someone who does everything Jesus commands but rather believes what Jesus has done. The example of Mary and Martha says it all: Martha is gently scolded for wanting to do something for Jesus while Mary is commended for doing nothing but listening to Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).

 

Give up trying to follow Jesus under your own power and listen to the good news of what he has done for you. Sometime in the hidden depths of eternity Jesus sat down and counted the cost of saving damned humanity (Ephesians 1:4). Jesus calculated what it would take to save the unsaveable, to redeem the unredeemable, to take people that were fit only for hell and make them suitable for heaven. What was that cost? Doesn’t Jesus spell it out for us in our lesson? Did Jesus hate his family? Well, he left his Father at the throne of heaven and abandoned his mother at the cross because he loved you more. His family called him crazy (Mark 3:21) and his own brothers didn’t believe in him (John 7:5) – but that didn’t deter him from carrying out his work of redemption. Did Jesus hate his own life? Well, he had no reputation, no friends he could count on, no place to lay his head (Matthew 8:20) and soldiers divided up his only earthly possessions in the shadow of his cross (John 19:23-24) – he certainly didn’t place much value on his life compared to yours and mine. Jesus shouldered a cross that was heavier than just wood – it was weighted down with our sins, our guilt, our shame, our repeated failures to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus stepped onto the battlefield against enemies that seemed to have him outnumbered and overpowered – sin, death and the devil – and he refused to surrender, even though the devil repeatedly offered him the easy way out (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus gathered up his infinite resources as the Son of God and built the only tower that reaches to heaven. Yes, Jesus counted the cost of our discipleship and knew that it would cost him nothing less than his life – a price he willingly paid. Jesus did what we could never do: he counted the cost and paid the price for us to be his disciples – to follow him through life and death to heaven.

 

If you want to be a disciple, then give up. Give up the idea that discipleship is all about what you do: you getting better, working harder – and everything that belongs to that mindset: your determination, your pride, your power, your self-righteousness. You can never build the tower of a Christian life; that’s the whole reason Jesus came to earth: to build it for you. That’s what Luther meant when he paraphrased Psalm 46 and wrote a mighty fortress is our God (CW 200:1). When you think it’s all about you and your effort – you do not qualify as a disciple. In fact, true disciples do just the opposite, they retreat regularly to the fortress Jesus built. When you run back to your Baptism, the fortress gates open for you because you bear the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Proverbs 18:10). When you run to hear the Absolution which offers you forgiveness for your sins, you’re taking shelter inside the mighty fortress of God’s grace. When you run to Holy Communion you run into a tower built of Jesus’ sacrificial body and blood. And no big bad wolf, no, not even the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18) can ever blow this tower down.

 

So if you want to be a disciple of Christ, there’s really only one thing you have to do. Give up. Give up thinking that Jesus died for your salvation but left the rest up to you. Give up the illusion that you can pay the high price of discipleship yourself. Stop trying to defeat sin, death and the devil with your own paltry resources and strength. You can’t do it – and neither can I. We can’t even imagine the cost of discipleship, much less pay it. Thank God that Jesus both counted the cost and paid it in full by his life, death and resurrection. This is the only counting left for us to do: count Christ as your substitute, your righteousness, your Lord and your Savior – because that, that faith, is what makes you his disciple. Amen.

 


[1] Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2017) 72

[2] https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/augconf/aug08.htm (The above is a liberal paraphrase of “Give me chastity and continency, only not yet.”

Luke 14:1-14 - The Great Reversal in God's Kingdom - September 22, 2019

If we didn’t have a sermon this morning, if we just said “amen” and moved on with the service, what would your take-away be from this text? What is it about? Is it about showing kindness and mercy to the sick – like Jesus did to this poor man with dropsy? Is it about proper party etiquette? So that if you’re attending a Packer’s party this afternoon you shouldn’t sprint for the comfiest chair or if you’re hosting one, that you shouldn’t invite your family and friends but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind? Or is the moral of the story that if you’re proud sooner or later you will be humbled but that if you’re humble, sooner or later you will be exalted? The fact that we aren’t really sure what we should take from these verses is telling. It tells us that we might have skipped right over a key detail in verse 7: that this illustration of the wedding feast was a parable – an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. It tells us that we tend to read Scripture through the lens of the law (this is about something I need to do) rather than through the lens of the Gospel (this is about what God has done). Most of all, it tells us that we have a really hard time seeing things from God’s perspective – because that’s really what this text is about. This text is not really about table manners or hosting dinner parties – it’s about how in God’s kingdom everything is upside down, backwards, reversed from the way of this world. In God’s kingdom, there is a great reversal.

 

The parable is told in the context of a dinner party thrown by a Pharisee on the Sabbath day – a regular occurrence in those days. We see a great reversal already in the first six verses. The Pharisees had seated Jesus in the most humiliating seat possible, next to a man suffering from dropsy. (Dropsy was a disease that caused bodily swelling and disfigurement and made a person ceremonially unclean (Leviticus 21:16-23).) But Jesus turned the tables. He exalted his position of humility by healing this poor man – something which left those in the seats of honor speechless. As the meal continued, Jesus noticed the tendency of the guests to choose places of honor at the table. Given that these were Pharisees, we’re not really surprised by this. From Jesus’ depiction of the Pharisee proudly praying in the temple (Luke 18:9-14) to his blunt assessment in Matthew that Pharisees love the place of honor at banquets (Matthew 23:6) – the Gospels portray the Pharisees as a proud, self-exalting bunch.

 

Now in and of itself, there’s nothing eternally important about where you sit at a dinner party – or anywhere, even church, for that matter. But how you behave with others, how you rank yourself does often expose the hidden thoughts of the heart. It is a sign of how you rank yourself in God’s eyes. And that’s what Jesus is driving at in this parable. When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. Think of a wedding. If you’re not in the bridal party, if you’re not immediate family, if you’re only a cousin, a second cousin, a second cousin once removed, and you try to take a seat at the head table, the bride is going to stare daggers at you and none-too-gently tell you that your seat is back there, way back there, next to the restrooms. If you were to attempt such a thing at a wedding today, all you’d earn for yourself is embarrassment.

 

But here Jesus is teaching us about something far more important than proper etiquette at weddings. He is teaching us about the kingdom of God. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a wedding feast. Why? A few reasons stand out. First, a wedding is probably the biggest celebration in almost any culture, filled with family and friends, food and drink, laughing and dancing. Second, since you must be invited, attendance at a wedding is a privilege not a right. Third, and best of all, is that you get to eat and drink – and some other poor sap has to pick up the tab! This, Jesus says, is what the kingdom of God is like. It’s an incredible celebration. Attendance is a privilege, not a right. And, the best part is that for us, it’s completely free!

 

The question is, when it comes to the grand wedding feast in the Kingdom of God, how do you approach it? With what attitude do you walk into this party? Will you barge in like a Pharisee, acting like you’re doing the host a favor by showing up, acting like you own the place, acting like you deserve to be there? And don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is just about how you are to walk through the pearly gates when you die. The kingdom of God is not merely a future reality; God is reigning among us right here and right now. This has everything to do with how you approach the foretaste of heaven’s feast that we call divine worship – because the attitude with which you approach God’s house now is the same attitude with which you will approach the banquet in heaven. No, it’s not really about where you sit – it’s about your heart. What’s in your heart as you enter God’s house? Do you drive by all the people walking their dogs and prepping their boats and mowing their lawns and puff out your chest a little bit, thinking “God, I thank you that I am not like these people (Luke 18:11). I go to church!” Do you take time before worship to examine your heart, to meditate on the Scripture lessons, to think about what we are really doing here? Do you approach confession and absolution with a clear understanding of your personal need for forgiveness, or do we sometimes say the words without really thinking about them? Do we ever think that worship is where we serve God instead of where God serves us? Or, most subtle of all, do we think that going to church somehow earns us a seat in God’s kingdom? If we do, then we have become Pharisees, legalists, people who think that seats in God’s kingdom are earned rather than freely given. If we approach God’s house with proud and presumptuous hearts, then God will humble us.

 

Because there’s more going on here than meets the eye. When you step through those doors you are willfully and intentionally stepping into the presence of the all-knowing and all-powerful God. You are stepping into his house, his temple, his courtroom. You are coming into the presence of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:29). And I would be doing you a huge disservice if I didn’t tell you what you look like when you show up. It’s not what you saw when you looked in the mirror before you left your house. God is not impressed with how well-dressed you are, how big the offering is in your envelope, how faithfully you’ve attended in the past, or how well-behaved your children are. Oh, that may be how we judge each other – but the LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). What’s in your heart this morning? How did you enter into God’s presence? Do you regard it as a right or a privilege?

 

Last week we left here cleansed by the body and blood of Jesus from sin and with his blessing. What have you done with those gifts this past week? Have you kept your heart pure in thought, word and deed? Have you daily humbled yourself before God’s throne and treated others as better than yourself? Or has pride gotten the better of you? Have you proudly imagined that you are such a good Christian that you don’t need to study your Bible on your own? Have you found yourself demanding that others – coworkers, spouse, children – serve you rather than the other way around? Does it concern you that you are standing before the God who demands nothing less than perfection (Matthew 5:48), and that you don’t come close? If we really understood what we looked like to God, we wouldn’t treat worship so casually, we wouldn’t act like it’s merely an opportunity to catch up with friends, we would approach the throne of the Almighty with fear and trembling – and if we fail to do so, it reveals a proud and deluded heart. It reveals that we really aren’t so different from those Pharisees who imagined that they deserved the position of honor and glory – even in the presence of the Son of God. So let me ask you again: how do walk through those doors? With what attitude are you going to approach the One who can either save or destroy your soul (James 4:12)? Do we have any right to be here? We are no one. We are nothing – less than nothing – for we are mere dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). Even our good works are nothing but filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We are not here to give anything to God – as if he needed anything from us anyway (Acts 17:25). If we approach God’s presence with pride-filled hearts, we will be humiliated.

 

Are you ready for the great reversal? The great reversal is that when we finally realize that, when God has shown us the ugly truth about ourselves in the mirror of the Law, when he has brought us to confess our unworthiness and sin, then we are ready to be here, in the presence of God at his wedding feast. That’s the great reversal Jesus is teaching us about in this text. In fact, the whole Gospel can be distilled into a great reversal, a great exchange. On our own we are nothing but dust in God’s eyes – and so Jesus left heaven and made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2:7). We all have a sinful tendency to exalt ourselves and tear others down, so Isaiah foretold that the almighty Son of God would allow himself to be despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, allowed himself to be sentenced to crucifixion by one of his own subjects (John 19:11). Jesus, the sinless Son of God, took on himself the burden of our sin – our pride and arrogance included – and took our place under God’s wrath. Jesus, the only one who truly deserved to sit at heaven’s banquet, descended into the depths of hell to pay for our sins – so that we never would. Jesus took our sin so that we could have his righteousness. He took our place under God’s wrath so that we could have his place in God’s Kingdom. He died so that we might live. And because he rose again in exalted glory three days later – we can be sure that this great reversal, this great exchange has been completed once and for all. We can stand here in God’s holy presence and fully expect to find a seat waiting for us at heaven’s banquet – not because we’ve always been humble and generous but only because God turned everything upside down: he humbled his Son to the point of death so that we might be exalted to heaven’s eternal glory.

 

Many churches like to advertise that they only welcome sinners – but very few actually practice what they preach (I think this is especially apparent when you visit their websites and notice them bragging about how much they do for the poor and needy in the community on their websites – bragging is hardly humility). Jesus makes it clear today only humble, penitent sinners will be welcomed into heaven’s banquet. If you think you can come storming in like a Pharisee, like you own the place, like deserve to be there – the only person you’re deceiving is yourself (1 John 1:8), and you will be humiliated. But, if you come with fear and trembling, with the attitude that you don’t deserve to be there, with the humble confession that you are what God says you are: a sinner, undeserving of anything but wrath – then I have some really good news for you! This is the place for you. Here Jesus takes you by the hand through Word and Sacrament and says to you friend, move up to a better place. Here Jesus invites you to sit in his seat of honor and dine on the feast he purchased with his blood. It’s a great reversal. In this world the proud are exalted and the humble humiliated. But in God’s Kingdom the proud are humbled and the humble are exalted. May God grant us the humility to believe that the only ones who will find a seat at his eternal feast are those who confess in faith that they don’t deserve it. In Jesus’ name. Amen. 

Luke 13:22-30 - Wrong Question; Right Answer - September 15, 2019

It’s generally accepted as an undisputed and unchanging truth. You hear it repeated everywhere from elementary school classrooms to doctor’s and financial advisor’s offices, and you may have even heard it in church. What is this unchanging, undisputed truth? “There are no stupid questions.” You’ve heard that before, right? Is that true? Are there no “stupid” questions? There are stupid questions. There are questions that should not be asked. There’s one in our text. Jesus is teaching his way through towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem telling them that he must be betrayed and abandoned by his friends, abused and wrongly accused by the church and executed by the state in order to pay for the sins of the world. And yet, even as Jesus is proclaiming the saving Gospel, someone from the crowd, someone who undoubtedly thought he was pretty clever, asks: Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?

 

Now, you may be thinking, “what’s wrong with that question? I’ve been wondering that myself.” In fact, people love to ask questions like this in Bible class, questions with no obvious answer, questions that make them appear to be deeply wise and theological, questions they hope will stump the pastor. It’s a popular question, no doubt. But it’s a bad question. Why? First, because it reveals a sinful preoccupation with the salvation of others. Like other questions in this same vein: “What about people who never had a chance to hear the Gospel, God wouldn’t send them to hell, would he?” God has never commanded us to worry about the salvation of the nameless, faceless people we will never meet. He consistently tells us to take advantage of our own time of grace (Psalm 32:6; Isaiah 55:6; Philippians 2:12-13). Second, it’s a bad question because it is an attempt to uncover the hidden will of God. God has revealed everything we need to know in his Word. If he hasn’t revealed it, it’s something he doesn’t want us to know. And we should accept that. In fact, we just get ourselves into trouble if we don’t. Remember Adam and Eve? God chose not to reveal to them the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). But that wasn’t good enough for them. They tried to peer into the hidden will of God by eating of the forbidden fruit and instead of finding wisdom and knowledge they wound up finding guilt and shame, sin and death instead. Third, and most importantly, questions like this tend to turn repentance and faith, which are to be intensely personal things, into mere abstract, theoretical ideas. This question makes heaven and hell seem like imaginary places. This question reveals a prideful and presumptuous heart; one which thinks he is clearly “in”, but is curious about how many others there will be.

 

How do you deal with stupid questions? With the Law. This person wanted to ask hypothetical questions about other people; so Jesus points the razor edge of the sword back at him. (Literally: “YOU”) Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. “You asked about others, when you should be worried about yourself. Are you sure you will be saved?” And to maximize the impact, Jesus shows us what lies outside that door once it shuts. You will stand outside knocking and pleading…there will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth. Jesus does here what the Holy Spirit chose not to do in Genesis. Genesis 7 does not describe the gut-wrenching scene outside the closed door of the ark as thousands of people pound on the door until their knuckles bleed as the flood waters rise around their necks. We don’t hear their anguished screams, the cries for a second chance. We don’t see the torrential rain sweeping them away, one by one, to certain death. As bad as that must have been, the scene on Judgment Day will be even worse. Not only will they face an eternity of torture, they will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.

 

Jesus closes with a statement that Martin Luther described as enough “to frighten the greatest saints.” [1] Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last. In other words, don’t get cocky. Don’t think that just because you’ve been baptized and confirmed, because you give your offerings and read your Bible that you can sit back and set the cruise control to heaven. Continue making every effort to enter through the narrow door, which doesn’t leave time for foolish hypothetical questions about others. If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, you’re familiar with this concept. During the safety speech, what does the flight attendant tell you to do if the oxygen masks drop out of the ceiling? First secure your mask and make sure it is functioning before you worry about anyone else. Otherwise, you both might end up dead. If these words seem startling and uncomfortable – that’s because they are. They are cold, hard Law. They are intended to shake us out of our complacency and force us to ask the hard questions: If those who appear to be first in line to heaven can be lost, where does that leave me? Am I going to be saved?

 

That’s a very good question. That’s the question we should be asking. But where do we even start? With Jesus’ words. Jesus says that there’s a door through which people can pass in order to be saved. Yes, it’s a narrow door, and many will try to enter and will not be able to, but there is a door into the kingdom and it’s open…for now. The day will come when that door is shut and locked forever – but today – as long as the Gospel is being preached and you’re still alive to hear it – that door stands open.

 

To whom is this door open? Well, to whom did Jesus extend the invitation as he was teaching and preaching in the towns and villages of Israel? Did he call to the proud and self-righteous? No, he said come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Are you wearied by your sin and burdened with guilt? Then Jesus’ invitation is for you. Yeah, but only perfect people can go to heaven, and I’m not perfect. That’s right, but remember what John said when he saw Jesus? Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Are you in the world? Then Jesus took away your sins. Yeah, but certainly Jesus expects us to be getting better, to sin less and do more good, to get into heaven? That’s not what Paul said, Paul said here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15). Do you get the picture? The door to heaven is open, not to prideful, presumptuous, self-righteous people – but only to confessed sinners. Yes the door is narrow because there is only one door. But Jesus is this one door – and the sacrifice he offered on the cross has opened the door wide enough for a whole world of sinners to fit through – including sinners like us.

 

 

If that’s true, then why did some people think they were “in” only to find themselves locked out? Those who said we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets. Why did they hear I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers! (This translation doesn’t clearly convey their precise argument. They’re not saying that they ate and drank with Jesus but in his presence. In other words, they had an external, superficial relationship with Jesus, but that’s as far as it went.) You know the type, don’t you? The type who wants nothing to do with the church until the time comes for a baptism, wedding, or funeral – then they insist that the church open its doors, as if that somehow opens up heaven. The type that thinks coming to church on Christmas and Easter makes you a Christian. But it can also be the type who sit right there in those chairs week after week and say all the right words but don’t really mean it; who come merely out of habit, not because they desperately need forgiveness, who imagine that somehow, every single sermon is aimed at other people and not themselves. People like that believe what the evildoers in our text believed: that salvation comes by proximity, that merely being in the presence of Jesus is enough to gain you entrance into his kingdom on the last day.

 

The fact is that being in Jesus’ presence doesn’t make you special – any more than breathing air does. Jesus is present everywhere (Jeremiah 23:23-24). There is nowhere anyone can escape his presence (Psalm 139:7-10). But salvation doesn’t come by merely being in Jesus’ presence. Salvation is attached to the body of Jesus hung on a cross and the blood of Jesus shed to cover sins. Jesus doesn’t tell us to eat and drink in his presence but to eat and drink his body and blood (Matthew 26:26-28), to believe in him (John 6:36), to be saved. Jesus made this point explicit to some of the 5000 people he had miraculously fed with just a few fish and loaves of bread. They believed that because they had eaten in Jesus’ presence, they were set. But Jesus dashes this fantasy to pieces: I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:53-54). The door to heaven is narrow, impossibly narrow for anyone bloated with unforgiven sins or hauling the baggage of self-righteousness to enter. But the door to heaven must open for all who have become small by laying their sins at the foot of Jesus’ cross and placing their faith in his merits. That’s repentance. That’s what Jesus is driving at when he says [continue] mak[ing] every effort to enter through the narrow door. Continue repenting, continue believing in Jesus for forgiveness. Continue struggling against the devil, the world and your own sinful flesh that would have you think that only others need to repent. Repent and believe and step through Jesus, the narrow door to heaven.

 

This text began with a fundamentally foolish question: are only a few people going to be saved? It’s foolish because it comes from a heart of pride and presumption. It’s stupid because it tries to pry into the hidden knowledge of God – knowledge that God doesn’t want us to have. But did you notice what entrance into the kingdom depends on? Those locked out claimed to know Jesus, but what does he tell them not once, but twice? I don’t know you. Entrance into heaven doesn’t depend on whether you know Jesus…it depends on whether Jesus knows you. If you are really concerned about your salvation, that’s the all-important question: does Jesus know you? How can you be sure? Well, if Jesus has called you by name in Baptism, then he knows you. If you have heard Jesus’ spokesman say to you: “I forgive you all your sins” then he knows you, but he doesn’t know your sins. If Jesus gives you his body to eat and his blood to drink – I’d say it doesn’t get more intimate than that.

 

Do you see why we place such a huge emphasis on the means of grace – the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – here? Those are the only means, the instruments, through which Jesus gets to know you, to wash away your sins, to cover you with his righteousness so that you can be certain that the narrow door to heaven will be open for you. I don’t think we can overstate how comforting it is that our salvation doesn’t depend on how much we know – or think we know, but rather on how well Jesus knows us. Newborn infants can’t confess their faith – but Jesus welcomes them into his arms and blesses them – he knows them (Mark 10:16). There are times in all of our lives when we forget all about Jesus, we stray from the narrow path, and we can start to think that he could never forgive us for what we’ve done, we can begin to think that we are beyond saving – but even then Jesus is thinking about us, praying on our behalf: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Perhaps most important of all, the day may come when we don’t know our spouse, our children, or what year it is. Even then, Jesus says I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep…I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:14, 28). Does Jesus know you? Continue making every effort to hear his Word, to receive his forgiveness, to eat and drink his body and blood at this table – and you can be absolutely positive that Jesus, the narrow door, knows you.  

 

Forget about asking foolish, theoretical questions regarding things that God doesn’t want you to know. Don’t worry about how many will be saved, that’s God’s concern, not yours. Instead ask the important question: am I going to be saved? And cling to the answer: Jesus has died for your sins, Jesus has called you by name in Baptism, cleansed you with his absolution, and given his very body and blood to you to eat and drink – he knows you, he claims you, he is the only door, the narrow door to heaven for you. Yes, one day this door will slam shut forever. So don’t wait, repent and believe today, because today this door is open to you. Amen.

 


[1] Lenski, Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel (Columbus, Ohio: The Wartburg Press. 1946) 755

1 Samuel 2:12-26 - How'd She Do That? - September 8, 2019

School has resumed and among the many things students may be learning about this year (if they’re still teaching history classes today) are the seven ancient wonders of the world. You remember what they are, right? No, me neither, because all but one have been destroyed. They are proof that man-made marvels just don’t stand the test of time. Is there anything you marvel at today? Anything that makes you go “how’d they do that?” Or have we become cynical, knowing that today’s marvels will be topped by tomorrow’s and none of them will really last? Did you know that there is one thing that is a perennial, perpetual marvel – not just in 2019 but in any year? Something truly rare and priceless? A faithful and active Christian young person. Now, I could recite some numbers from polls of religion in America detailing the loss of young people from the church, but I would argue that the best evidence is right here in this room: look around and see how few of the young people who were confirmed at this very altar still attend faithfully. Yes, a faithful Christian young person is a rare and precious modern marvel, and our text this morning puts one of the marvels before our eyes. The boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with God and with men. What parent wouldn’t love to have their child described in those terms? And so the question is: how did Hannah do that?

 

I’m fairly certain if we were to go around the room and ask the question: “what’s the secret to successful parenting?” there would be as many answers as there are people. Why would that be? Well, because in today’s world most people today see child-raising as a matter of personal preference. “You raise your kid the way you want to and I’ll do it my way and don’t you dare question or criticize how I do it.” Is that true? Are we free to raise our children however we want? God doesn’t seem to think so. Train up a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6), he says, not whichever way you think is best. “Ah, but that’s just a dusty old proverb, and no one even knows what it means.” We learn what Proverbs 22:6 means by comparing and contrasting the interwoven stories of Hannah’s and Eli’s sons. 

 

The Lord first directs our attention to Eli’s sons: Hophni and Phinehas. Eli’s sons were wicked men; they had no regard for the LORD. Literally, the Hebrew says that “they did not know the Lord” – they didn’t believe in him. That’s every Christian parent’s nightmare, right? And their unbelief manifested itself in their lives. Apparently Eli had adopted a very progressive style of parenting – he allowed them to live however they wanted. And do you know what happened? That’s exactly what they did. They abused their positions as priests. They would steal the best part of the people’s sacrifices for themselves through threats of physical force (1 Samuel 2:16), and they slept with the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Eli had raised two worthless, good-for-nothing, unbelieving sons. “That’s not very nice, who are you to judge another parent?” Fair enough. Here’s the Lord’s judgment: this sin of the young men was very great in the LORD’s sight.

 

Eli knew all about his sons’ lifestyles, and what did he do? Now Eli, who was very old, heard about everything his sons were doing to all Israel…So he said to them, “Why do you do such things? I hear from all the people about these wicked deeds of yours. No, my sons; it is not a good report that I hear spreading among the LORD’s people. If a man sins against another man, God may mediate for him; but if a man sins against the LORD, who will intercede for him?” Eli did what a parent should do, right? He confronted his wicked sons with their sins. Well, kind of. He griped and complained about their behavior, but he didn’t do anything about it. He just made empty threats. He seemed more concerned about his reputation among the people than his sons’ standing before God. Eli’s failure was aggravated by the fact that he wasn’t just a father, he was also the high priest. As high priest, he should have stripped them of their priesthood and excommunicated them until they repented. When Eli finally rebuked them, it was too little, too late. He had tolerated his son’s wicked lifestyles for so long that by the time he tried to correct them, their hearts had become callous and hardened. And because Eli had failed to discipline his sons, God decided to do it for him: it was the LORD’s will to put them to death. Yes, this is the same LORD who wants all people to be saved (2:4). But as a result of Eli’s failure to discipline his sons (Proverbs 13:24) and the resulting hardening of their hearts, God had run out of patience and ended their time of grace in judgment. (Not long after this both were killed in battle on the same day (1 Samuel 4:11)). Eli serves as a cautionary tale against failing to discipline children when they need it.

 

So much for the pastor’s kids, what about Hannah’s? What do we know about Hannah? We know that she and her husband faithfully visited the tabernacle to worship and offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 1:3). We know that Hannah was barren for many years but that she prayed persistently to the Lord for the gift of a son (1 Samuel 1:12-13). We know that she remained faithful even after the Lord granted her request: first, she named her son Samuel which sounds like the Hebrew for “heard by God.” Second, she kept her vow to give Samuel back to the Lord once he was weaned. (Can you imagine sending your five or six-year old away to study for the ministry?) Just as important, even when Samuel was already serving the Lord in the tabernacle at Eli’s side, Hannah knew that her job as parent wasn’t finished. Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. Even though Samuel was no longer under her roof, she still took responsibility for his spiritual welfare. She was hands-on. She supplied and supported and encouraged his work in the Word.

 

Two families. Both with the same advantages and opportunities – but drastically different outcomes. Why? Well, while Eli’s highest priority seemed to be maintaining his position and reputation among the people, what was the highest priority in Hannah’s life? If you guessed Samuel, you’d be wrong. Samuel was not Hannah’s #1 priority – and that’s what makes her such a fine example. (Children are gifts from God, but they are not little gods!) God was the highest priority in her life demonstrated by the fact that she kept her vow to give him back to the LORD. Hannah was willing to sacrifice everything, even the precious time with the son she had prayed and prayed for, because for both her and her son, God came first.

 

 

Do we do that? Do we teach our children that the highest priority in life is God? Make no mistake, theology class is in session every minute you spend with your children. What are we teaching them when we send them to Sunday school but skip Bible study ourselves, when we prioritize academic and athletic success over Christian education, when screen time replaces devotion time, when our Bibles sit on the shelf at home gathering dust, when we only pray as a family in crisis situations, when summer vacation means a vacation from worship? When push comes to shove in our busy lives and first thing to get shoved out is God and his Word – what do you think your children learn from that? Who or what will they think is “god”? And when that’s the case, why would we expect the outcome to be anything different than Eli’s sons? Parents – you – not their Sunday school teacher or pastor – are the primary connection to God’s Word in your child’s life! If you have neglected God’s Word in your home and life, it’s not just your sin anymore – you are also causing one of Jesus’ little ones to sin. You heard what Jesus said about that, right? If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)

 

Do we deserve to be wearing a millstone? I do. I’ve found it far too easy to prioritize other things before God in the lives of my sons. And I know how easy it is to rationalize bad priorities. It’s easy to assume that they’re too young to learn or imitate my bad behavior. It’s way easier to throw on a TV show than read a Bible story. We come to church regularly, why would we need to have a family devotion at home? Giving them what they want is a whole lot easier than disciplining them. I know how tempting it is to follow modern parenting methods rather than the way God has laid out in his Word. Just thinking about it feels like a millstone around my neck. The guilt and shame are unbearable. Thankfully God is a far better parent than I am – because when I come to him dragging my millstone of parental malpractice, do you know what he says? “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18) Parents – you need to hear this and take this to heart. Whether your child is 3, 33, or 53, your sins of parental malpractice are forgiven, cleansed, gone. That doesn’t mean they were no big deal – they were – but God does not hold them against you. That’s the biggest question of all: how could he do that? Like Hannah, he had to give up his one and only Son to do it. He hung the millstone of our sin around Jesus’ neck on the cross so that we could be forgiven. And in the end, that’s why God and his Word must be our top priority – not because his Law provides guidance for this life, though it does – but because his Gospel is the only thing that can open the door to eternal life. If we believe that children really are sinful from conception (Psalm 51:5) then what could possibly be more important in life than giving them every opportunity to receive the forgiveness of sins God’s only Son purchased with his own blood?

 

Now for the million dollar question: if I do that, spend the time and money to train up my child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6) will that guarantee that they will be faithful throughout their lives and saved on the Day of Judgment? We should know better than to ask questions like that. In the end, each person is accountable to God for their sin and their faith (Ezekiel 18:20). We cannot force anyone, not even our own children, to believe in Jesus as their Savior. But we can encourage them, we can train and discipline them, maybe most important – we can teach them by our own example to treasure God’s Word. We can remember that our job isn’t done once they’ve been confirmed. And, here’s perhaps the part that gets overlooked most often, we can recognize that the primary classroom for this training is not in those rooms over there. It’s on the couch as you choose which TV shows to watch and which to turn off. It’s in the car as your children hear the language you use towards other drivers. It’s in the kitchen as they learn about marriage from how mom and dad treat each other. It’s in the crowded restaurant where you lead them in giving thanks for the food God has provided. It’s in how you talk about your neighbors and coworkers and governmental leaders. It’s in the “Jesus forgives you and I forgive you” when they repent color on your walls or crash your car or mess up their lives as adults. The biggest lie the devil has sown regarding Christian education is that it’s something that happens for one hour a week in Sunday school. If we believe that, then we’ve already lost the battle. Christian education is a life-long process and the world is the classroom. We cannot force our children to be faithful to God, but we can be faithful trainers in God’s Word like Hannah.

 

So back to our initial question: how’d she do that? How did Hannah’s son grow in favor with the LORD while Eli’s fell under God’s judgment? Was it nature or nurture? How about neither? Here’s the secret. When Samuel was old enough Hannah dedicated him to the LORD (1 Samuel 1:28 EHV). The Hebrew word contains the same idea as the one translated train up in Proverbs 22:6. It’s the word used for dedicating something to the LORD (Deuteronomy 20:5; 1 Kings 8:63; 2 Chronicles 7:5). In other words, Hannah knew what every Christian parent should know: we can’t raise children the way they should be raised, that’s why we need to dedicate, entrust, give them to our good and gracious Father in heaven. It begins with baptism and Sunday school and confirmation class – but it doesn’t end there. It continues as the Word of God fills our hearts and our homes and our lives and is absorbed by the little sponges God has given us. As we said earlier, manmade marvels just don’t stand the test of time. But when you entrust your child to your heavenly Father’s care in in Word and Sacrament, don’t be surprised if people come to you and ask you: “what’s your secret? How did you do that?” And now you know the answer. “I didn’t. The LORD did.” Amen.

 

Genesis 15:1-6 - The Miracle of Faith - September 1, 2019

Have you ever thought about how impossible faith is? How there is really no good, demonstrable reason that we should believe anything the Bible says? How none of us have seen with our own eyes the people and events on which the Christian faith is based? If you stop and think about everything that is working against faith – it’s nothing short of miraculous that anyone living in 2019 has it. And so today we’re going to talk about the miracle of faith.

 

Our text for today relates a portion of the life of Abraham, or Abram, as he was still called. Scripture regularly presents Abraham as “the father of faith,” a prime example of someone who was sure of what [he hoped] for and certain of what [he did] not see (Hebrews 11:1). And the final verse of our text tells us why: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Abraham believed God’s promises, staked his life and his eternity on them – and through this hand of faith God gave Abraham the righteousness that he needed to be saved from final judgment and receive the gift of eternal life. Through faith, God gave himself to Abraham as his shield and reward. This is also why for centuries Lutherans have claimed the motto of sola fide, “faith alone.” When we discuss true, biblical faith, we are not discussing some trivial element of Christianity, we aren’t talking about personal feelings and opinions, and God forbid we ever equate Christian faith with other so-called “faiths” in the world. When we talk about faith, we are talking about the one thing that can save sinners from God’s wrath, the one thing that divides the world into those who are saved and those who are damned forever. Because faith is so important and yet can sometimes seem to be some nebulous, indescribable thing, God has put Abraham forward as a living and breathing example of faith.

 

I’m not sure that Abraham would have been my first choice. Just think about everything that was working against him. Back in chapter 12, the Lord called him from out of the blue and told him to leave his family, leave his home and go to a land he had never seen. How quick would you be to pack up everything and leave based on literally nothing more than the promise of God? On top of that, the Lord told Abram that he would make him into a great nation – as innumerable as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And you know what obstacle stood in front of that promise, right? Abraham was 75 and his wife, Sarah, was 65 – and they had been childless the entire time. We’ve been blessed with lots of babies in recent years at Risen Savior, but none from mothers who were eligible for social security benefits. Certainly, by all appearances, the deck of reality was stacked against God’s promises.

 

From that perspective, the purely human perspective, there’s no way Abraham should have believed these wild promises. And at certain times, Abraham showed that he didn’t – at least not perfectly. He got impatient with God. He challenged God: you haven’t given me any children. He didn’t trust God’s plan or timeline. He tried to take matters into his own hands; sleeping with his wife’s servant to work around God (Genesis 16). Does that sound familiar? Do we ever get impatient with God – expecting him to act on our timetable – and when he doesn’t, to take matters into our own hands? But this is meant to comfort us. To show us that not even the “father of faith” was by any means the perfect believer – especially in the face of real, seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

 

Perhaps the biggest obstacle believers face today in holding onto faith is that they’ve been led to believe the wrong thing, for example, that when you put your faith in God then life will automatically get better (that having faith is like having an all-powerful genie on your side to make life go according to plan). Perhaps more believers have fallen from faith in recent decades because they believed this lie than any other single reason. The truth is that faith is not a guarantee that your life will get better – in fact it means that you will face more challenges in your life than you otherwise would. Don’t be surprised by this, because Jesus didn’t say “take up your La-Z-Boy and follow me.” He said take up your cross and follow me (Luke 9:23).

 

Take another one of the heroes of faith found in Hebrews 11, Abel, for example. This is what God says about Abel: by faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead (Hebrews 11:4). Abel is a hero of faith. He’s still speaking to us. What is he saying? “There I was, minding my own business, bringing my offering to the Lord. But then my brother got jealous of me and one day he invited me to go out into his field and guess what happened! He killed me! That’s what I got for trusting the promises of the Lord!” Did God fail Abel? Absolutely not! He rescued him from this awful world where a man could do that to his brother. Sadly, Abel’s example is not unique. Throughout Bible and church history, the greatest challenge countless believers have faced have been the people closest to them. Again, the lesson is that we shouldn’t expect the life of faith to be smooth. In fact, we should expect just the opposite. But that doesn’t make it easy, does it? It still presents an obstacle because in those hard moments, the devil tempts us to believe that God isn’t good and doesn’t care about us and isn’t serious about keeping his promises.

 

What happens when those temptations come to you? What happens when God doesn’t come through for you in the way or in the time you expect? What happens to faith when your world comes crashing down around you and there’s no magical happy ending? When the biopsy comes back “malignant”? When you get laid off from work because they’re looking for someone younger and cheaper? When the pension or social security you were counting on fails? When your spouse says “I don’t love you anymore”? When the child you raised to fear and love the Lord decides to marry a Mormon or comes out as homosexual or attempts suicide? Has God failed? Is your faith shaken? And these aren’t just theoretical obstacles either, are they? Some of you are facing challenges like them right now.

 

And those are just some external obstacles. Think about the internal obstacles. So you say you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is really true God in the flesh and your Savior? Have you ever seen this Jesus guy? Have you seen any evidence of those fantastic miracles he’s said to have performed? Can you explain to me how a Jew dying as a criminal on a cross 2000 years ago has any impact on your life, much less wipes out everything you’ve ever done wrong? And then you believe that he rose from the dead? Tell me, when was the last time you saw somebody rise from the dead? You really believe all this? Do you see how impossible this faith thing really is? And yet, you believe. You’ve staked your life and your eternity on a man you’ve never met, who died as a convicted criminal on a cross because he supposedly escaped a sealed tomb and rose to life. There are only two options: either faith is a miracle – or we’re all crazy.  

 

Faith faces a huge test when we’re faced with obstacles like that – obstacles that seem to come with more frequency and ferocity as this world spirals down the drain to Judgment. And we need to be honest about these obstacles. It doesn’t do anyone any good to simply walk around with a stupid smile on our faces pretending that these challenges don’t exist. That kind of shallow, superficial faith will quickly wilt in the face of trials and temptations (Matthew 13:21). Faith has to be able to deal head-on with these challenges.

 

How? The first way is to recognize that that all of those obstacles – as real as they are – are only obstacles “humanly speaking.” These challenges are only insurmountable from our limited, human point of view. For Abraham to trust that he could find a safe home in a place he had never seen or heard of, that Sarah could bear a son post-menopause, and that one of his offspring would be the Savior of the world – was, indeed, impossible from his limited, human perspective. But we don’t talk about faith from a human point of view. Humanly speaking, faith in God’s promises is exactly what the world calls it: a foolish, unintelligent, delusional dream. But faith is not a matter of humans speaking; faith is a matter of God speaking – and that’s what really matters. Because when God speaks, all sorts of “impossible” things happen: everything comes from nothing (Genesis 1), highways appear in seas (Exodus 14), virgins give birth (Luke 2), and former pagans like Abraham believe! And that’s the real reason we call faith a miracle – not because you’ve got to be crazy, but because it’s God’s work from start to finish. And so when our faith is challenged, what do we need? More of God’s Word! Like Abraham, we need to hear God repeat his promises over and over to sustain our faith.

 

Faith is a miracle because faith is God’s work. For most of us, that miracle first happened in baptism – which is a beautiful picture of this. There at the baptismal font, God used nothing but his Word and some water to adopt us into his family, wash away our sins, plant the seed of faith and write our names in the book of life. That’s why, both the authors of the NT and faithful Christian teachers go back to baptism so frequently, especially in times of trouble. When your faith is tested and challenged, even by death itself, the very best thing to do is ask yourself: am I baptized? Did God promise me in that sacrament that he would never leave or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5)? Has he ever revoked or nullified that promise? Is there anything in this world that can separate me from the love of my God who is bigger than the world and whose grace is greater than any of my sins (Romans 8:38-39)?

 

Putting us into circumstances that make us ask those questions is how God exercises our faith. He puts obstacles into our lives in order to strengthen our faith, by forcing us back into his word and promises. Because in the end, faith is not an emotion, it’s not the mere knowledge of some Biblical facts, it’s not some vague belief in a generic “god.” The demons have that kind of faith (James 2:19). That’s not saving faith. Saving faith starts with a specific knowledge of what the one true God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has said and promised in his Word (which is why, if you don’t know your Bible, you can’t really have faith!). Then, saving faith agrees with those words and promises. Faith agrees or confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, that his death has wiped away the sins of the world, that he did, in fact, rise from the dead after three days and will return again to judge the living and the dead. And finally, saving faith trusts these things, making them personal. Saving faith trusts that Jesus loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20), that he is my shield from judgment, my very great, eternal reward. Saving faith is trust in the promises of God and saving faith recognizes that all of God’s promises find their center and their answer in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).

 

This is faith that lasts. This is faith that is unshaken by challenges and obstacles because this faith is not rooted in me and my ever-changing circumstances but in God and what he has done for me in Christ – and that will never change, not even when this body and this world are destroyed (Isaiah 54:10). You will be tested, of that you can be sure – just like Abraham, just like the apostles, just like every saint who has gone before you. But this faith does the impossible: it trusts God’s promises in spite of challenging circumstances because it sees beyond the present to the ultimate, unshakeable proof of God’s goodness: the cross of Christ. The cross is the one thing you can, you must hold onto – because it will not move, even when the rest of life is falling apart around you.

 

Yes, this faith is a marvelous and miraculous thing. Not because you’ve got to be crazy to believe it, but because it is all God’s doing, from beginning to end, through his powerful Word. This miracle of faith will see you through every obstacle you face in life and by this faith you will be shielded and rewarded on the Last Day. If you haven’t in a while, take some time today to thank God for his miraculous, powerful gift of faith! Amen.

Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:1-11, 17-26 - Chasing After the Wind - August 25, 2019

Have you ever tried to catch the wind? It’s impossible. Oh sure, you can catch some of the things carried by the wind: butterflies, mosquitoes, the common cold – but not the wind itself. But what about accomplishments, pleasures, wealth – have you ever chased after them, tried to grab on to them and store them up, thinking that at some point they will make you happy? In the Gospel Jesus taught that it doesn’t matter how big your barns are and how much stuff they are filled with – because when God comes for your soul, none of it will matter anyway (Luke 12). Our lesson from Ecclesiastes goes even further, claiming that apart from God all earthly pursuits are meaningless in view of death. Aren’t you glad you rolled out of bed this morning to hear that? The Lord loves us too much to let us chase the winds of this world now and learn the truth only when it’s too late, when our eternity is already determined.

 

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Havel havelim [1], declares King Solomon. When Hebrew writers repeat a word, it’s a superlative; “the epitome of meaninglessness.” Emptiness. Nothing. Vapor. What is? Anything and everything; life itself. And if anyone would know, it would be Solomon – because he had it all and more – and yet, probably writing as an old man, he looks back and calls it all meaningless, as meaningless as chasing after the wind.

 

And while Solomon learned this hard lesson, each generation must learn it for itself – and in our generation, these are fighting words. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been conditioned to evaluate life based on wealth, fame, power, beauty, accomplishment – and a host of other earthly measures. We’ve been taught to study hard so that you can get a good degree with which you can find a good job which will make you appealing to a good spouse who can help you find the perfect house in which to raise the perfect children until you enroll them in the ideal college and find them an ideal spouse – at which point you can crack open that giant nest-egg you worked so hard for in retirement, take life easy; eat, drink and be merry (Luke 12:19). It’s not a stretch to suggest that this is the American dream. But on a deeper level, this is the delusional dream spawned by our sinful nature – that true happiness is out there, just around the corner, you just need to find it and grab ahold of it. And it’s not going to let go of its dream easily. The sinful nature can’t be persuaded or converted – it must be killed. And that’s the job of the Law – to expose the sin that lives in our hearts and put it to death (Colossians 3:5). It’s an ugly and painful death – but it must be done to escape the hellish eternity which awaits all who set their hearts on earthly things. So, for the sake of your soul, listen as Solomon drains the life out of the American dream.

 

The first illusion to die is that of pleasure. I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly – my mind still guiding me with wisdom…I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. “Work hard, party harder” is not just a saying found on T-shirts and bumper stickers, it’s the philosophy many live by. And it’s not new. The Lord condemned the Israelites for lounging on their ivory-embroidered beds and drinking wine by the bowlful (Amos 6:1-7) The Epicureans of Paul’s day lived by the motto let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die (1 Corinthians 15:32). The hedonistic, Hugh Hefner philosophy of chasing personal pleasure is attractive – the question is: does it work? Does it satisfy? You can fill your belly with the very best food and drink – and make no mistake, these are gifts from God (Psalm 145:15) – but if these gifts are enjoyed apart from thanksgiving to the Giver, then you’re no better than livestock; you’re simply a well-dressed food processor. Last night’s gourmet dinner amounts to nothing more than this morning’s hangover and heartburn. Well, sex then. Sex is satisfying, right? Not outside of the boundaries God has painted around marriage – color outside of these lines and all you get is loneliness and emptiness, broken hearts and broken families. Millennials are known for pursuing pleasurable “shared experiences” over accumulating “stuff” – thus the rise of adventure vacations, escape rooms, and Airbnb’s. Does it work? No, just like “stuff” there’s always one more adventure to have, one more niche restaurant to “experience” and one more exotic place your friends say “you just have to visit.” Chasing the wind of pleasure is just that: chasing after the wind.

 

Ok then, how about acquiring wealth? I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well – the delights of the hearts of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve…nothing was gained under the sun. Can piles of wealth give meaning to life? Jesus calls the person who believes that a fool who has forfeited his soul (Luke 12:20). Sooner or later, everyone realizes that death will rob you of every last penny you worked so hard for – that’s why hearses aren’t equipped with trailer hitches. But it’s far more important to see that wealth doesn’t bring happiness even when you’re alive. To the illusion that says “If I can only make enough to buy this, to find financial security, then I’ll be happy,” Solomon responds, “don’t bother, I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work.” Have you ever known anyone who earns enough? Who has saved enough? Has a car that is new enough? Gadgets that are cutting-edge enough? You build your own little kingdom only to have your children give it all away to Good-will. You might die a millionaire and be buried next to a beggar. It’s meaningless – a chasing after the wind.

 

Well, if it’s not the destination, then it must be the journey: life’s meaning must come from work. To this proposition, Solomon responds, what does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. Ah, but that’s not what the American dream seductress whispers into your ear. She transforms the quiet wisdom of “work ethic” into the shrill scream of a slave-driver: “Work, work, work. Learn, earn, compete, build your resume, plan, sacrifice, worry, lose sleep, skip vacations, add hours, increase responsibility, climb the corporate ladder, scratch the right back, invest, buy low, sell high, save, risk, work, work, work!” After all this, your life will have meaning and fulfillment – right? Wrong! Solomon says that all the hours he worked, all the plans he made, after building a temple for the Lord and a palace for himself, all his toil brought him nothing more than greater stress and sleepless nights. And if you think his experience was unique, consider that 1 in 6 Americans take medication to combat depression and anxiety. [2] What will all your hard work amount to after you retire, after you hand it over to someone else who tears it all down and starts over? Nothing. Apart from God, even work is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 

Depressing, isn’t it? It’s depressing to think that all your hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve spilled to acquire wealth and experience pleasure is nothing more than chasing after the wind. But it’s the soul-crushing truth. It’s why many people today struggle to summon the energy to get out of bed in the morning, why others just live for the weekend when they can drown their despair in parties and substances, why so many of us need the constant distraction of music, movies, and entertainment – anything to escape the dark, silent emptiness of life under the sun. That’s idolatry for you, and idolatry when viewed from that perspective is pretty horrifying, isn’t it? It’s dark and empty and meaningless. Idols consume their worshipers from the inside, leaving behind nothing but an empty shell. This is life without God, life without Christ at the center. Why? Because it’s not who you are. You are not the sum total of what you own and what you’ve done. You’re so much more than that. You were created by God, redeemed by God, adopted by God to live forever with God. And without God at the center of your life, your being, your identity, all you do and all you have under the sun is truly meaningless. But God offers us a better way. In spite of our futile attempts to find happiness apart from him, God graciously gives us a new way of life. He enables us to see beyond the horizon of life under this sun, to find the true meaning of life in his Son, Jesus.

 

In the final verses of our text, Solomon points us in the right direction: a man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? Hang on, I thought Solomon just finished arguing that all work, pleasure and wealth is meaningless, now he says that there is nothing better than eating and drinking and working? Did you catch the key phrase? Without him – without God – no one will find contentment or happiness, but with him we can be joyful whether we are rich or poor, whether the meal is the chef’s special or Chef Boyardee, whether we are running our dream business or just counting the minutes to 5 o’clock. Because Jesus has redeemed this life by destroying the one thing that makes it all meaningless: death. He left his place at his Father’s right hand, he emptied himself of his glory and power as the Son of God, he became poor so that we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). He despised all other earthly pursuits apart from his pursuit of your salvation; which led him to the cross where he willingly suffered the horrifying wrath of God and the miserable, meaningless death and hell we deserved for our sins of greed, idolatry, gluttony and lust. The blood he shed won for us the greatest treasure of all: the forgiveness of sins. When you have this treasure, then death is not the end, but the beginning of true life. When you have this treasure you can be certain that you will pass the test on the night God calls for your life – because you have Christ and his righteousness. Through baptism this treasure is yours – which means that you don’t have to chase your best life now because your best life is still to come, when you will finally be free from sin and the futility of chasing the wind of meaning in this life.

 

And therein lies the secret to a meaningful life here and now. The secret is not having a better life now, but rather a better perspective on life. Knowing that Jesus has secured the eternal riches of heaven for you – frees you to actually enjoy life now. While the unbelieving world tries to squeeze meaning out of pleasure, wealth and work, believers understand that the good things of this life are just that: things of this life – to be used, enjoyed, and, eventually, left behind; just like the wind. Don’t fall for the lie that happiness is something that lies just over the horizon, after just a little more work and a few more years of saving (when you’ve moved into your dream house, bought the perfect car, brought the baby home, gotten the promotion or pay-raise, or finally reached retirement) – because if you do, you won’t just find yourself perpetually disappointed – you will miss the wonderful gifts God has already given you. Instead see that the meaning of the pleasure and wealth and work you have today lies in the simple fact that the God who created and redeemed you has given it to you for your enjoyment – nothing more and nothing less.

 

The meaning of life isn’t the sum total of the pleasure we’ve experienced, the wealth we’ve acquired or the hard work we’ve completed. The meaning of life is that God has loved us so much that he gave us life, gave us his Son, gave us faith to believe in him, and has promised to give us a place in his heavenly mansion. Try to grasp hold of what this life under the sun has to offer and you will find yourself empty handed, like trying to catch the wind. But open your hands to receive Christ in faith and God will fill those hands with everything you need for this life and more (Matthew 6:33). The Christian life is the simple life: 1) trust in God to take care of the big picture – now and forever – and 2) enjoy the life under the sun he has given you – because you already have eternal life in his Son, the one who puts an end to all of our chasing by giving us the one thing we could never get for ourselves: true, lasting happiness. Amen.

 


[1] Incidentally, havel was the name of Adam and Eve’s second son, whose life was so meaninglessly cut short by his brother Cain (Genesis 4:8)

[2] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/1-in-6-americans-takes-a-psychiatric-drug/

Genesis 18:16-32 - Pray Boldly Because of Who Your God Is - August 18, 2019

When you make a petition to someone, when you ask someone for something what do you base it on? Children, at least my children, simply seem to think that they ought to get whatever they want whenever they want it. As we get older, petitions often take the form of a negotiation: you do this for me and I’ll do this for you. Mom, if you let me spend the night at my friend’s house, I’ll clean my room. Dad, if you let me take the car, I’ll wash it. Honey, if you get up to change this diaper, I’ll get the next one. In the worlds of business and academics, petitions are usually merit-based: I’ve worked here for 2 years, I deserve more vacation time. I’ve got a 4.0 GPA, I deserve to get this scholarship. But what about when we make our petitions to God? Every time we pray, we are petitioning God for something, asking him for something that we can’t do or achieve on our own. On what should we base our prayers? On blind presumption? On what we can do for God in return? On our past or present merit? How bold would you be, could you be, if the basis of your prayer was yourself? And yet Jesus both invites and commands us to pray – and to pray boldly (Luke 11:1-13). What’s the secret to prayer like that? Today, Abraham shows us.

 

Genesis chapter 18 is not only a remarkable chapter in the life of Abraham, it’s a remarkable window into God’s heart. The incident before us takes place years after God had called Abraham out of his life of idolatry to faith (Genesis 12), after Abraham and his nephew Lot had gone their separate ways (Genesis 13), and after God had confirmed his covenant of grace (Genesis 15). Perhaps the most notable context, however, is that this incident occurs shortly after Abraham had rescued both his nephew Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah from the hands of the Elamites (Genesis 14). In the name of the Most High God (Genesis 14:22) Abraham had rescued the kings and people of these two cities – and yet just a few years later, almost to a person, they had turned away from God in unbelief and expressed their unbelief by engaging in depraved sexual behavior (Jude 7).

 

At the beginning of chapter 18, the LORD (the pre-incarnate Christ) appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18:1) accompanied by two angels. He had come for two reasons, first, to restate his promise to give Sarah and Abraham a son in their old age, and second, to conduct an investigation. As verses 20 and 21 state the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know. And, while the angels continue on their way, the LORD stays with Abraham for a little pow-wow. The LORD not only revealed his plans for Sodom and Gomorrah to Abraham, but he stayed behind to hear Abraham’s thoughts on the issue. He treated Abraham like a friend (Isaiah 41:8).

 

Here’s the first truth that makes us bold to pray: even though God is the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent King of the universe, he invites you to present your requests at his heavenly throne and promises to consider them. And that’s not just my opinion, that’s what Jesus promised when he said ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Luke 11:9-10). Just like with Abraham, God is present with you – he has revealed his heart to you in his Word; and his gift of prayer is his invitation to open up your heart to him. God is eager to listen to your prayers – so boldly take him up on his offer!

 

Which brings us to Abraham’s prayer. I won’t reread it in full, but doesn’t it strike you as bold, bordering on rude? Who does Abraham think he is asking a holy God to change his mind, to spare the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah at all, much less refuse to take “yes” for an answer? Maybe a better question is, why don’t we pray like that? Why aren’t we bold, persistent, almost rude in prayer – even though Jesus made it clear that God wants us to “bother” him (Luke 11:7-8)? Are we too proud to ask more than once? Don’t we believe he is listening? Do is it because we think we have everything under control – that we trust our own strength to solve all our problems? Is it guilt or shame? “Why should God listen to me? Why should he care what I have to say? I’ve sinned too much and failed to do too much good to have any right to ask for favors from God. I don’t dare be bold in prayer.” Or is it the other extreme: a lack of faith in God’s promises? “I’ve poured my heart and soul out to God asking for something in the past and all I heard were crickets. No reaction. No response. Nothing happened.” Do you see the problem with all of those reasons? It grounds the basis for prayer in me and my worthiness and my perception and my emotions. If our prayers are based on who we are and what we’ve done, then it’s true, we have no right to come to God and no right to expect him to answer – because we have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and our sins do separate us from him so that he does not hear us (Isaiah 59:2).

 

Clearly, Abraham understood that. Did you notice how he appeared to sense that he was treading on thin ice? He says now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes and twice he pleads may the Lord not be angry. But he boldly forged ahead. Why? Because his prayer wasn’t based on who he was but on who God is! Listen to how Abraham hangs his petition on God’s character: Far be it from you to do such a thing – to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? Abraham was bold because Abraham knew God. He knew that God is just. Abraham doesn’t defend Sodom and Gomorrah. He doesn’t try to excuse their sin by calling them “enlightened” or “progressive.” In fact, he doesn’t mention their sin at all. But he does plead with the Lord to spare those cities for the sake of the righteous. Abraham knew that even as a just Judge cannot let the guilty go unpunished, neither can he rightly punish the righteous.

 

God is still just today. He will always do what is right even if we don’t understand it. In recent days, the death of Jeffrey Epstein behind bars again raised the question: did he escape justice for all his wicked deeds? The Biblical answer is that God is just. He will not leave the guilty unpunished nor will he punish the righteous. And we can hang our prayers on this truth about God. Whenever you pray your will be done – understand that God’s will is to punish the wicked and spare the righteous. When you pray for God to heal your body and cure your diseases, know that God’s answer – whether he says “yes,” “no,” or “not yet” is the right answer for you at this time. When you pray for a relative who has fallen away from faith – know that God will deal with them justly. Maybe most importantly, when you are confronted by the death of someone who was not a confessing believer, when you wonder where they are – you must understand that wherever they are: God didn’t act without all the evidence, he didn’t treat them unfairly – wherever they are, God is and remains perfectly just. We may not always see or understand it now, but don’t ever doubt that, in the end, God will do what is right – you can base your bold, persistent prayers on it!

 

Now, you may be thinking: how is the fact that God is just supposed to make me bold and confident in prayer? After all, I just admitted that I’m a sinner who deserves nothing but his wrath and punishment. Well, that’s true, but that’s not the whole truth. There’s a story told about a circuit judge who had built a reputation for fair and firm judgments. Without fail he punished the guilty and acquitted the innocent. One day, his son was brought into his courtroom to stand trial, charged with driving 50 mph over the speed limit. “How do you plead?” he asked. “Guilty,” his son replied. “Good, because you are. Guilty as charged.” He bangs down his gavel, “the sentence is a $500 fine or a week in jail.” Well, the son didn’t have $500. But just as the bailiff came to take him away, his father, the just judge, steps down from his bench, takes off his robe, reaches into his pocket and writes out a check for $500 to the court. He paid the penalty for his son’s crime himself.

 

This story illustrates the other side of Abraham’s knowledge of the Judge of all the earth. He is just, yes; but he is also gracious. That’s something no one would ever know unless God revealed it – and God had certainly revealed his grace to Abraham. It was nothing but grace that led the LORD to choose Abraham and declare him to be the Father of all believers as he did at the beginning of our text (Genesis 18:18-19). Abraham knew God was gracious and he appealed to this grace in his petition on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. And how did the Lord react to this bold and reckless request? He never lost his patience, he never got angry, he never said “now you’ve gone too far!” God had called and justified Abraham – he had made him his child. That relationship is why God patiently listened and heard Abraham’s plea. Keep that in mind. In baptism, through sheer grace, the Judge of the universe became your Father. A Father who never tires of hearing your voice, a Father for whom no request is too big or small, a Father who has the patience of God, a Father who will listen and answer in his own time and way.

 

In the end, God did not find even 10 righteous people (Genesis 19:15) in Sodom and Gomorrah and he rained down burning sulfur [on them] (Genesis 19:24) to carry out his justice. But even there we see God’s grace, don’t we? For even though he didn’t find 10 righteous people, he did spare Lot and his family – his grace extended even beyond Abraham’s wildest request! (Incidentally, how many times has God not given us what we ask, only to give us more than we asked for?)

 

But something still doesn’t add up, right? How can God be perfectly just and perfectly gracious at the same time? If God doesn’t punish us as our sins deserve, doesn’t that mean that he’s unjust? And if God only spares good people, that’s not really grace at all, is it? How do we resolve this tension between God’s grace and his justice? That’s the big question, isn’t it? That’s what people wonder when they see a world where the wicked seem to prosper and the righteous seem to suffer. Where is this just, gracious God now? How do we resolve this tension? We can’t, only God can.

 

God’s justice demanded that he punish sin with death and hell – and God’s grace demanded that he forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:7). How did God maintain both perfect justice and perfect grace? Through the cross. The cross satisfied God’s demand for justice because on it, Jesus suffered under the unmitigated wrath of God’s justice and paid for the sins of the whole world – yes, even sins like those of Sodom and Gomorrah. Because Christ satisfied God’s justice, God was freed to show us grace, to forgive our sins and declare us not-guilty. You may have wondered how Abraham could allege that anyone, even 10 men, were righteous when the Bible says that no one is righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). Only through faith in Jesus can anyone be counted righteous before God (Romans 3:22). Through faith, Jesus takes your sins and gives you his righteousness. Jesus’ righteousness will shield you from God’s judgment on the Last Day – a judgment that will make Sodom and Gomorrah look like child’s play – just as surely as he spared Lot and his family. And knowing that, knowing that because of Christ you stand in God’s good graces, that is what makes you bold in prayer.

 

The secret to bold prayer, then, is not to look in the mirror, but to look to the cross. There you see what kind of God you have: a God who is right here with you, for you; a God who is perfectly just and a God who is perfectly gracious. Pray boldly. Pray boldly that God would execute his justice on earth – punishing the wicked and sparing the righteous. Pray boldly to the Father who has already declared you “not guilty” for the sake of his Son. When you pray like that, you can be sure that God has heard and will answer, because his answer is right there, hanging on the cross in your place. That’s who your God is. Amen.

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10 - The Lord Is Speaking; Are We Listening? - August 11, 2019

Anyone who’s read the Old Testament knows that God frequently spoke directly to his people. He talked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3); he personally warned Noah of the flood that was coming and provided instructions to build an ark (Genesis 6); he spoke to Abraham on multiple occasions, calling him out of idolatry and sending him to a new land (Genesis 12), testing his faith (Genesis 22), confirming his covenant (Genesis 15); and he called Moses to lead Israel from a burning bush (Exodus 3); and here, in the account before us, the Lord not only spoke but even stood before Samuel in the middle of the night. And the natural question that many people ask is: why doesn’t God do that anymore today? Does God have laryngitis? Are we doing something wrong? Do we need more flashing lights and pumping bass and emotional praise music and, certainly, more inspiring, visionary preaching to get God to loosen up? Ironically, it was agent Dana Scully on the TV show The X-Files, who suggested that maybe God is speaking but no one is listening. [1] If we believe that in the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2), then we realize that only half of agent Scully’s suggestion is up for debate: God is speaking. The question is: are we listening?

 

Since technology has given us more ways to communicate than ever before, there are very few excuses for us to be “out of touch.” More often, if we don’t hear what someone is saying it’s because we don’t want to hear it. It’s called selective hearing. Whether it’s ignoring emails, screening phone calls and texts, or simply putting headphones in and cutting ourselves off from the world – we all practice selective hearing, even when we know we shouldn’t. And it’s not a new phenomenon – Israel, in Samuel’s time, had a severe case of it. It wasn’t that God wasn’t speaking; they still had the Law given to Moses and the promises given to Abraham, but neither those tasked with preaching it nor those tasked with listening were doing their job. The problem started with Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phineas, the priests of the LORD (1 Samuel 1:3). Instead of preaching and teaching God’s Word to the people of Israel – as they were called to do – his sons used their office to fatten their own bellies and satisfy their own fleshly desires. For example: God had instructed his priests to receive their portion of the sacrificial offerings only after it had been offered to the Lord (Leviticus 7:29-36; 1 Samuel 2:12-17) – but Eli’s sons robbed the people by demanding their portion first, sometimes by threat of force. They were also notorious for sleeping with the women who served at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 2:22). Worst of all, they refused to listen to anyone who tried to correct their sinful ways – they refused to repent (1 Samuel 2:25).

 

What do you do when you’re trying to talk to someone and you can tell they’re not listening? The Packer’s preseason has started, how many times will you try to get the attention of a diehard fan during a game before you give up? Parents, what do you do after the 9th and 10th times you’ve told your child to clean up their toys? Often, when we know someone is not listening, we react by refusing to speak. And that’s how God decided to treat Israel – they had stopped listening, so he stopped speaking. That’s what it means when it says in those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions. God was giving Israel the silent treatment. God wanted to speak to his people, to lead them, discipline them, forgive them, comfort them but because they refused to listen God refused to speak. It was the worst judgment possible.

 

Do we have a listening problem? Do we deserve the silent treatment from God? The numbers tell a sobering story. At Risen Savior we have 143 baptized and 103 communicant, adult members. And yet, our June and July average worship attendance was 82 and Bible class was 17. In terms of percentage, only 57% of the people God claimed as his own in Baptism and only 16% of those who swore at their confirmation that they would endure all things, even death rather than fall away from [God’s Word] were regularly hearing God’s Word. How long would you be able to keep your job, your marriage, your family if you only listened 50% of the time? If you owned a business, what would you do with an employee that only shows up half of the time? Phew, I’m a 50-percenter, I’m safe from the accusations of the Law today. Really? Consider that God says do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says (James 1:22). Do we ever worry (Matthew 5:25-34) or lie (Colossians 3:9) or place our trust in earthly leaders (Psalm 146:3), even when God says not to? Do we fail to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to love others as ourselves (Luke 10:27), to give God’s Word a central place in our homes (Deuteronomy 11:18-21)? Does God ever speak and we ignore what he has to say? Do we have a problem with selective listening or, just as dangerous, selective obedience?

 

Why? Why is the one thing needful often the first thing that gets cut from our schedules? Well, we’re busy, right? Busyness is easily the #1 excuse for not hearing, not meditating, not taking time to study God’s Word. But busyness is just a cover for the real reasons. Reasons like pride. Pride that wants to say “Listen up, Lord, I’m speaking” rather than “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  “Listen up, Lord, here’s how I want the course of my life to go, here’s how I want my marriage to be, here’s the dream college, job, home, career, salary, gift or blessing I want – and if you don’t give me what I want, then I’m going to kick you to the curb.” Or maybe it’s anger, the presumption that we are hurting and God doesn’t care. “God, where were you when my brother died, my daughter got into a car accident? Where were you when I was alone or depressed or panicked?” Or maybe our problem is just sheer laziness. Bibles, devotional books, sermon videos – and more – are all easily accessible, but we’re just too lazy to make use of them. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis tells the story of a senior demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his demonic nephew named Wormwood – who’s just getting started in the family business of tempting humans. Screwtape gives him all kinds of sage advice about how to hasten mankind’s damnation. In one letter he writes “It’s funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” [2] If the devil can snatch God’s Word out of our hearts and minds (Luke 8:5), then he doesn’t need to fill them with all kinds of other voices, he’s already succeeded in stealing the “one thing needed” from us. Then Israel in the days of Samuel is a cautionary tale: we deserve for God to give us the silent treatment, too. Now and eternally.  

 

And yet, even though we deserve the silent treatment, God, in his grace, continues to speak. He hasn’t taken his Word from our homes, from our church, from our country – in fact, just the opposite, he speaks to us in more places and ways than ever before. God is infinitely more patient with our deafness than we are with one another. Have you ever felt the burden of your sin, the guilt of your disobedience and not found your Savior standing here, offering you his body and blood, telling you to go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Have you ever desired guidance or peace or comfort and not had access to a Bible? Have you ever come here on Sunday morning and found the parking lot empty and the doors locked? In spite of our selective listening and in spite of our disobedience God continues to speak to us, for only one reason: grace. Grace that is rooted in Jesus.

 

Because Jesus, our substitute, never practiced selective listening, he never ignored his Father’s will or decided that he knew better. Jesus not only made hearing his Father’s Word his highest priority (Luke 2:41-52), he obeyed every word, perfectly. When His Father decided that the only way to save the human race was for the Son of God to become man, Jesus left his throne in heaven and took the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:7). When His Father told him the salvation of sinners is only possible if he assumed the guilt of the sins of the world, Jesus sweated blood, Jesus begged for his Father to find another way, but he listened and obeyed (Luke 22:39-46). When God’s plan meant an illegal trial, mockery, and torture, Jesus endured it all in silence (Mark 14:61). And, when the Father’s wrath over our sin demanded that Jesus be nailed to a tree, suffer the depths of hell and give up his life, Jesus went, without complaint, like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). And, in his grace, God credits Jesus’ perfect listening skills and obedience to our account. He forgives our deafness and remembers our disobedience no more – all because Jesus endured the cold shoulder of God in our place (Matthew 27:46).

 

For Jesus’ sake, God still speaks to us. He speaks to us day after day, year after year, so that even stubborn, selective listeners like us get the message. And when he speaks, he gets results. We see that in the case of Samuel. The fourth time the LORD called to him, he finally listened. And he kept listening even though the message God had for him was unpleasant and even though what God was calling him to do wasn’t easy. God was calling Samuel to announce his judgment and punishment on his mentor and friend, Eli, and his sons for their deafness and disobedience (1 Samuel 3:11-18). Without question, it would have been easier for Samuel to just roll over and stay in bed. Humanly speaking, it might have seemed prudent for Samuel to change or modify God’s message to avoid offending and angering Eli. But through his Word God gave Samuel faith to not only listen but to boldly obey.

 

God continues to do that for us, too. He gives us the wisdom to understand that in a noisy world, there’s only one voice we really need to hear (Luke 10:42). He gives us the gift of the Spirit, so that we not only hear his Word, but believe it (Romans 10:17). He guides our lives with his Word like a light shining on our path (Psalm 119:105). And, like with Samuel, he transforms people like us – who were all-too-often hard of hearing – into his representatives, who boldly obey and boldly proclaim his Word. No, he doesn’t call each of us into the public ministry like he did with Samuel. And God often doesn’t tell us what we want to hear; that’s he going to make us rich or cause all our dreams to come true or heal all our sicknesses here and now – you will search the Bible in vain for promises like that. But he does call each of us to carry out our callings. We are husbands whom God has called to love your wives as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25) or wives whom God has called to submit to your husbands as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). We are children whom God has called to obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right (Ephesians 6:1) and parents whom God calls to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). We are citizens and neighbors and employers and employees – all callings that have come from God. Those are all high, hard callings, how can we possibly carry them out? Listen to what the Lord promises: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ezekiel 36:26-27). God’s Word has the power to do what none of the other voices in the world can do: he transforms us so that we not only want to listen, but we are emboldened to obey. It might not always make sense. It won’t always be popular. It will never be politically correct. But it is God’s Word – the only voice we can trust in this noisy world.

 

In the book of James, the Lord says: my dear brothers, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19) The Greek philosopher Epictetus made the common sense observation: we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. Both theology and biology tell us that we should listen more than we speak – good advice in every area of life, but especially when God is speaking. Listen to the Word through which God gives you the humility to listen and the boldness to obey his calling. Above all, thank God that for Jesus’ sake he’s still speaking to us. Amen.

 

 

 

 


[1] http://www.generationterrorists.com/cgi-bin/x-files.cgi?ep=3x11

[2] http://www.samizdat.qc.ca/arts/lit/PDFs/ScrewtapeLetters_CSL.pdf

Luke 10:25-37 - What Must I Do To Inherit Eternal Life? - August 4, 2019

What’s the difference between a vacuum cleaner and a lawyer on a motorcycle? The vacuum cleaner has the dirt bag on the inside. What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One is a spineless, poisonous blob; the other is a form of sea life. How does a lawyer sleep? First he lies on one side, then he lies on the other. I’m sure you have heard your fair share of lawyer jokes. Why are lawyers such an easy target? Why do they rank just above members of Congress and used car salesmen in terms of trustworthiness and respect? We meet a lawyer in today’s text who embodies the worst characteristics of the profession: he’s sneaky, he’s deceptive, and he’s looking to twist the law to serve his own purposes. Sadly, lawyers aren’t alone in this last area. Today, Jesus exposes the lawyer in all of us in his response to the most important question that can be asked: what must I do to inherit eternal life?

 

This parable is one of the best know sections of Scripture. It’s referenced by news anchors and politicians and civil rights leaders. You’ve probably heard at least one sermon on this text. Here’s how it often goes: the priest and the Levite were heartless, evil men. Don’t be like them. Instead, be like the Samaritan. Be compassionate. Stop and give a couple bucks to the guy holding the sign by the highway onramp. Slow down and ask if the stranded motorist needs help. If you do that, you will satisfy God’s law and earn your way into heaven. Go and do likewise, then, is supposed to be the Gospel, the “good news” in this parable. Is it? If I tell you to be a “Good Samaritan” and send you on your way, will you be sure that eternal life is yours? Let’s look at the parable in a little more detail and see.

 

In 1st century Israel, the scenario posed by Jesus in this parable was an all-too-common one. The roughly 17 mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous, passing through rugged, barren terrain and filled with pilgrims coming to and from the Temple, the road was a favorite haunt of thugs and thieves. This man was probably returning home from offering a sacrifice or attending a festival when he was jumped by robbers who stripped him, beat him and left him to die in a ditch on the side of the road.

 

Three men had the opportunity to be a neighbor to this poor soul. The first, a priest, a man of God, a man who knew God’s mercy, showed no mercy himself and passed by on the other side. The second, a Levite, a temple assistant, who knew God’s Law, including love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), also passed this poor man by. Naturally, we ask: what were they thinking? How could they be so heartless and merciless? It’s frighteningly easy for us to get inside their heads, isn’t it? First, if the robbers were still in the area, they might wind up in the same ditch – how would that help anyone? Best to let someone else deal with it. Second, it wasn’t as if they could just stop, dial 911, wait for the ambulance to show up and then go on their way. If they stopped to help, everything fell on them. These were important men with things to do and people to see. Third, they may have had legal concerns of their own. There was an OT law that said that anyone who so much as brushed against a dead person was considered ceremonially unclean (Numbers 19:11) and, for a priest or Levite, would disqualify them from serving in the temple (Leviticus 21:1-4, 10-12) – in other words, if the guy was already dead and they touched him, they would not be able carry out their duty to the Lord – surely honoring God was sufficient reason to ignore this man. And so, in their minds, they had good, legal, justifiable reasons to ignore this poor man.

 

Then a third man passed by. He was not a temple worker. In fact, he wouldn’t have been welcomed in the temple. He was a Samaritan. The Samaritans were a mixed race, consisting of the Jews left behind after the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom and foreigners whom the Assyrians imported. Samaritans were the object of Jewish ridicule, hatred, and even curses. [1] Well, this Samaritan also came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went down into the ditch, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, set him on his donkey and took him to the local inn where he paid for him to spend the night. The next morning he left the man in the hands of the innkeeper, gave him two day’s wages and left his tab open in case there were any additional charges. Who, then, was the neighbor to the man who fell among the thieves? (So much did the Jews hate the Samaritans that the lawyer wouldn’t even identify him by name!) Not the priest or the Levite, but the half-breed heretic to whom no Jew would give the time of day much less a drink of water (John 4:9). The Samaritan wasn’t worried about defining who his neighbor was – rather, he understood the spirit of the law: he saw someone in need (there’s the definition of neighbor), had compassion on him, and helped him.

 

Now that you know who your neighbor is and how you are to treat him – go and do likewise. Yep. Walk out those doors and do the same thing. Help every man, woman, and child who happens to cross your path in life, regardless of how busy you are, regardless of your circumstances, regardless of what it will cost you. And while you’re doing it, do it with the purest of intentions and attitudes. Do it not out of obligation or fear of punishment or the promise of reward but purely out of love for God and love for others. Oh, and do this perfectly every day of your life if you want to earn your eternal life by what you do, because that’s what God’s law demands.

 

After all, a question about eternal life is what inspired this parable in the first place, wasn’t it? A lawyer came to Jesus and asked him Teacher…what must I do to inherit eternal life? And yet, while Jesus answered the lawyer’s question, he wasn’t really looking for an answer. He knew what the Law said, he rattled off Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 without hesitation. This was not a question borne out of curiosity or the honest inquiry coming from a troubled conscience – this was a lawyer doing what sleazy lawyers do: try to manipulate the law to serve their own purposes. It comes out crystal clear in his second question: and who is my neighbor? This question exposes the lawyer’s heart. If I know who my neighbor is, then, I also know who my neighbor is not. Then I can actually be justified in not loving and helping some people – such as Samaritans. After all, the lawyer inside us argues, God can’t expect me to love everyone all the time – why, that would be impossible! But if I can narrow the scope a little bit, lower the bar just a tad, then I stand a chance of doing it, keeping it and therefore justifying myself by my works – earning salvation by works of the Law.

We may make fun of lawyers for being devious and manipulative, but are we really any different when it comes to God’s Law? The lawyer inside us even has a name: old Adam. Old Adam is convinced that he can do enough to earn eternal life – that he isn’t the problem, God’s Law is, and that what needs to change is the law. You’ve heard his arguments before, haven’t you? Is this a sin? Is that a sin? Can I do this, go there, watch that without sinning? These days people bounce from church to church asking, “does your church, your pastor permit this, that or the other thing?” Here’s a hint: if you have to ask, you already have your answer. What that old legal-beagle Adam wants is not God’s Law explained but God’s Law limited, restricted, modified. Like the very best, most highly paid lawyers, he will search high and low for that tiny little loophole, that intricate work-around, that one exception God overlooked to cling to in the hope that maybe, just maybe, keeping God’s Law isn’t impossible for me, maybe I can justify myself and then I…don’t…need…Jesus. And, we don’t even have to go to law school to perfect these techniques.

 

Do any of these sound familiar: 1) Justification by Loophole – did God really say? At what point does it become “adultery”? How often do I have to go to church? How much of an offering is enough? 2) Justification by Comparison – I’m not as bad as those people. I go to church. I’ve never driven drunk. My family is intact – unlike some I know. 3) Justification by Virtue Signaling Labels – I’m pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-environment, pro-universal healthcare, pro-human rights, women’s rights, animal rights and therefore God must be satisfied with me regardless of the other stuff I do. 4) Justification by Inner Goodness – “I may have my flaws and weaknesses, I may not always show it, but deep down, I’m really a good person.” 5) Justification by Appeal to Justice – “She gossiped about me so I’m justified in gossiping about her.” 6) Justification by Imaginary Laws – I don’t drink, smoke, gamble or dance. Never mind there are no commandments against those things – I keep them and God ought to give me credit for it – or else, he’s the one with the problem. There are countless others. I’ll stop at six. Do you get the point?

 

The purpose of this parable is not to teach us what we can do to inherit eternal life (after all, an inheritance isn’t about what you do – it’s about someone else dying!). The Law can’t get us to heaven. Paul says if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law (Galatians 3:21). It’s not even primarily about teaching us who our neighbor is – because that’s not the real problem, the real problem is that we aren’t good neighbors! The Law was not given to justify us, rather God gave the Law so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (Romans 3:19). Jesus told this parable for the same reason: to silence our self-justifications, to humble us and bring us to our knees in repentance. That’s where the law, the go and do likewise should have led that lawyer, and where it should lead us.

 

So where’s the good news? One of the unique characteristics of Jesus’ parables is that we are invited to identify with the characters. Which one are you? Sinful pride wants to identify with the Good Samaritan. The Law exposes us as the priest and the Levite. But what about the Gospel? Which character are you in view of God’s grace? According to the Gospel you are that sad sack of bones lying in the ditch. The moment you were conceived you were ambushed, beaten and left for dead by the devil and the original sin you inherited from your parents. You were not just half-dead, you were fully dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1). All the good works in the world wouldn’t heal you and all the sacrifices you could offer couldn’t earn you a ticket to heaven. Left to yourself, you would have died in the ditch of your own sin, destined only to hear God’s verdict of guilty and be sentenced to an eternity in hell’s prison.

 

But then along came the most unlikely hero. Who is the most unlikely person in all the world to save you from the wrath of God you justly deserved? God himself. And yet, there God was, stooping down out of heaven, conceived in a virgin’s womb, laying in the hay in a stable, walking those same dangerous roads of ancient Israel, preaching and teaching and healing. Jesus was the Good Samaritan who reached into the ditch of this world to rescue us, bloodied and beaten and hopeless. He found us, not the other way around. He washed us in the waters of Baptism and bandaged our wounds with his forgiving love and brought us to the inn of his Church, where he has left the tab open to provide us with limitless help and healing. Jesus loved his neighbor and he loved God – perfectly, every day, his whole life. His love – not ours – fulfilled the Law of God for us. And, then, in the twist that no one saw coming, he traded places with us, he became the man who fell into the hands of robbers, crucified between two of them, bloodied and beaten by a world that wanted nothing to do with him. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification (Romans 4:25).

 

Do you want to stand justified before God? Then don’t be a lawyer, don’t look to justify yourself with loopholes and exceptions to the Law – because there aren’t any. Instead, look to Jesus. Trust in him and not yourself. For a man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone apart from any works of the law (Romans 3:28), including the law that commands us to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.

 

Did you catch the answer to that lawyer’s first question, that most important question: what must you do to inherit eternal life? Don’t do anything. Just lie there and let Jesus, the real Good Samaritan, come to you and wash your wounds with his forgiveness, bandage and pay for your sins with his body and blood, and keep you safe and sound in his Church until he returns to take you to heaven. Amen.  


[1] Franzmann, 385

Galatians 6:1-10, 14-16 - Never Become Weary of Doing Good - July 28, 2019

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s merits alone – this doctrine, justification, which is not only the central point of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, but is the central focus of the entire Bible – is the rock on which the Christian church stands or falls. But did you know that there’s a problem with this doctrine? Or, at least, there is the perception of a problem. The problem: if Jesus has done everything – then that doesn’t leave anything for me to do. It leaves us without any purpose or reason for living. I’ve even heard Lutherans complain that it’s depressing that our theology is so focused on Christ’s death for sin and our goal of heaven; that it feels like we are just sitting around waiting to die. Well, let’s confront that question. Why are you here? What is your purpose in life? Throughout the ages, false teachers have tried to satisfy the human need for purpose. In Galatia, false teachers taught that the purpose of life was keeping the Law of Moses to please God. In Luther’s time (and our time), Catholic theology taught people to “do” penance, “do” mass, “do” the Rosary – and if you really want to “do” something, enter a monastery to earn God’s grace. Today, the vast majority of Christian best-sellers promise to give clear direction to how you must live to please God and receive his blessings. The sad truth is that these guides have confused justification and sanctification, law and gospel: implicitly or explicitly teaching that you are saved by what you do – rather than that you do what you do because you are saved. In contrast, Paul refuses to create a new legal system for Christian living. If you’re looking for a rule for every single area of life, you’re not going to find it in his letters (or anywhere else in the Bible). Paul stands firm in the freedom of the Gospel with his encouragement to never become weary of doing good.

 

What is “good”? We know there is a lot of good being done in the world (husbands and wives are faithful to each other, parents diligently raise their children, laborers provide necessary goods and services, the sick are treated, the hungry fed, the naked clothed) but also that there is a lot of evil masquerading as “good” (for example: encouraging a biological boy to identify as a “girl” is evil; classifying a divorce as “no-fault” is evil, regarding it as a “right” for same-sex couples to adopt children is evil (a perversion of God’s plan for the family); etc.) Clearly we need a better definition of “good” than the world can offer. And God – the only one who is essentially good (Luke 18:19) – has defined what is truly “good” in his Word. He has three criteria. First, “good” is a fruit that can only be produced by faith in Christ. Only Christians can do truly good works. In Romans Paul says that everything that does not come from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). The book of Hebrews states that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Second, it must be done in love, and the Biblical definition of love is activity that is in harmony with God’s will. Love serves as a mask for all kinds of evil today, but true, God-pleasing love is shaped by the 10 commandments. Paul says in Romans that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10). Finally, for a thing to be considered “good” it must be done to the glory of God – and not for selfish, self-serving reasons. In Isaiah God says I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah 42:8). If something is done contrary to these three criteria, it doesn’t matter what the world says – it’s not truly “good” in the eyes of God.

 

As he closes his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives some practical examples of the good God wants us to never tire of doing. And it’s a bitter pill for the sinful nature to swallow. In our case, Paul is describing the opposite of the American way: instead of “living and let live” and “minding your own business” Christians are to take personally responsibility for each other (Genesis 4:9)! Paul says: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. To be “caught” doesn’t mean “ha, gotcha!” It means “overtaken, trapped, or stuck” – like a car that has slid into the ditch and is stuck in the mud. When you become aware that a fellow Christian has gotten stuck in sin, any sin, you who are spiritual, that is, you who believe in Jesus, are not to just stand back and watch them spin their tires. No, you are to roll up your sleeves and get down in the mud and help them. Notice that Paul does not say that this is only the responsibility of the pastor or elders, this is the responsibility of any and every Christian. For example, it would be very “good” in the eyes of God if you were to notice that someone hasn’t been in church for some time for you to reach out to them. This is to be done gently. In other words, the goal is not to further humiliate or shame them, but to carefully bring them to repentance and forgiveness. (The Greek word for “restore” is the same used for a doctor “setting” a broken or fractured bone.)

 

But the good God wants us to do for others isn’t limited to dealing with sin, either. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Again, this requires two things that don’t come naturally to us: first we must be will to share our own burdens and then we must be willing to shoulder the burdens of others. Both are hard, aren’t they? We don’t like to admit that we need help – and at the same time, we often think, I’ve got enough problems of my own – I don’t have time to help someone else. In the ancient world, burden bearing was a slave’s job. But that’s exactly what we are, aren’t we? Christ has set us free from serving the Law so that we might be free to serve others. What kind of burdens does Paul have in mind? The scope is limitless – which is probably why Paul doesn’t list any specifics. It could be befriending someone who is lonely or supporting someone who is struggling with addiction or encouraging a parent who has difficulty with an unruly child. It could be bearing with your spouse’s annoying and perhaps sinful habits, or it might simply be rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn (Romans 12:12). Paul’s goal is not to tell us precisely what burdens to bear but to impress on us that burden bearing is a responsibility we all share.  

 

But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. At first it might appear that Paul is cautioning us against falling into the same sin as the person we are trying to help: for example, that you try to help a gambling addict break his habit but you end up sitting down at the slot machine next to him. And while that is a real danger, the context leads in a different direction. He’s warning against a different temptation: the temptation to be proud and condescending and judgmental. To adopt the attitude of the Pharisee toward the tax collector: God I thank you that I am not like…this tax collector (Luke 18:11). St. Augustine once warned “There is no sin that one man has committed that another man could not commit.” [1] We don’t dare look down on anyone who has been caught in sin or struggles with a burden – because none of us is free from sin ourselves. To drive that point home, Paul continues if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load. Paul urges us to look at everything in view of Judgment Day. We will each stand in judgment for our own actions compared to God’s holiness – not compared to others. By ourselves, we are nothing, there is nothing good in us (Romans 3:10-12). Knowing this, we won’t be so quick to cast judgment when someone is caught up in sin. Instead, we will meet those who have fallen at the foot of the cross where we all find needed forgiveness.

 

Does that give enough purpose to your life now as you wait for heaven? There’s a part of me that says: “Nah. I think I like the American version of a “purpose-driven” life better; that life is all about fulfilling my dreams, reaching my potential, achieving my own happiness.” After all, that’s the way rest of the world works, isn’t it? If you spend all your time serving others, who’s going to serve you? If you don’t fight for your rights in your marriage, your family, your career, your church, you’ll just be run over and ignored. If you stoop down to give someone else a hand, how do you know you won’t get dragged into the mud? So it’s better to just mind your own business and take care of yourself and let everyone else do the same. And while we know that as the way of the world, isn’t that too often the way of the church? Let’s be honest. If you look around you right now, how many names do you know? Do you know where they live or what they do or what burdens they may be struggling with? How can we even pray for them, much less help them – if we don’t even know them? How can we claim to be spiritual when we quickly grow weary of doing good when it’s too inconvenient or takes too much energy or effort or takes away from my “me” time?

 

And so, because we are so quick to grow weary, Paul motivates us; motivation that has two sides: law and gospel. First, he addresses the very real reaction to a sermon like this: that we can sit here, listen, and simply dismiss it as either just hot-air or a message others need to hear as we walk out those doors. To anyone who might harbor such an attitude, Paul says do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. It is certainly possible for you to ignore and reject this sermon, and I would never know any better. But you do so at your own risk. Because, make no mistake, God sees all. God knows all. In the end, God will judge all. What we sow now is exactly what we will reap in eternity. If I dare to ignore God’s direction for my life today, if I instead sow to please my own sinful nature, I will reap destruction on the Last Day. So does that mean that I am responsible for earning my salvation? NO! The only way we can sow to please the Spirit is if we have already received salvation from the Spirit. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19)! The point is that my time, my energy, my money, my life are not my own. They are gifts from God. They are gifts he has given me to serve others and how I use them will have eternal consequences.  

 

“That sounds like a threat!” It is. It’s the Law. Do Christians need to be threatened? Yes. For two reasons. First, the Law is the only language our sinful nature understands. Like a lazy, obstinate teenager, the sinful nature is not to be coddled or reasoned with but warned and restrained. Second, Paul knows how quick we are to grow weary of doing good. “I’ve been giving, cleaning, counting, mowing, parenting, leading, teaching, preaching, serving others for so long – no matter how hard I work, nothing seems to change or get any better – I’m tired, I’m old, I’m worn out…I’m done, let someone else take over!” I know – and you know – how often those thoughts arise in our hearts. Relative to all that God has done for us and relative to the eternity Christ won for us, we are lacking spiritual stamina. We, the part of us that remains corrupted by sin, needs to be warned and threatened against giving up. It needs to be beaten and disciplined like an athlete’s body (1 Corinthians 9:27).

 

And yet, while the flesh will only respond to threats, our spiritual nature is energized by the Gospel: may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. In the end, what drives us to do good is not the Law, but the Gospel – not what we must do, but what Christ has done. When Christ died, there were three deaths: his, yours, and the world’s. Christ died for your sin. You died to the world. And the world died to you. Crucifixion means death and death means separation, the end of a relationship. That means that you are free! Christ has set you free from the wicked, lazy sinful flesh. He has freed you from the values and priorities and ways of the world. Because Christ has freed you from your burden of sin you are free to turn your attention to bearing the burdens of others. In other words, the fact that Christ has made you “good” with God frees you to do “good” for others.

 

And so Paul closes his letter with virtually the same blessing with which he began (Galatians 1:3): peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God. This “rule” is the balance, the tension in which we live as Christians: the rule of first receiving and then giving. It is faith that receives all that God wants us to have in Christ without any strings attached and it is faith that serves and gives and bears burdens for others without any strings attached. When the cross of Christ is your only boast, when you embrace the balance between receiving everything freely from him and giving freely to others, you will have two of the rarest things in the world: peace and purpose. Amen.

 

 


[1] LW 27:112

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 - Stand Firm In Your Gospel Freedom - July 21, 2019

Have you noticed that many of the biggest milestones in life are often characterized by the achievement of some level of freedom? From getting your first bike or your driver’s license – which free you from your parent’s schedules; to moving out of the house – which frees you from your parent’s rules; to paying off your home – which frees you from monthly mortgage payments; to retirement, which frees you from the demands of the workweek. At the same time, when you achieve these freedoms, does that mean that you are truly free to do whatever you want? Hardly. In fact, with freedom often comes greater responsibility. Up to this point in his letter to the Galatians, Paul has been adamant that salvation comes by grace through faith alone not by works of the Law. Obedience to the Law won’t save anyone. And now, in the third part of his letter, Paul addresses the accusation hurled against faithful Gospel preachers of every age: “It’s dangerous to say that people don’t have to obey the Law to be saved – because if people realize they are freed from the demands of the Law then they will just go back to their sinful ways.” And this challenge seems to make sense. Nonetheless, Paul doesn’t waver in his premise. He encourages us to Stand Firm in Our Gospel Freedom.

 

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Commentators refer to this as a Janus verse. Janus was the Roman god of gates and doorways – he’s depicted as having two faces, one looking to the past and the other to the future. Before we look ahead to what it means to live as a liberated child of God, we must remember that we were slaves. Jesus said in John’s gospel: I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). Apart from Christ we were enslaved by our sins, our disobedience – because we can’t get rid of them, can’t remove them; apart from Christ they control you, define you, and determine your eternity. Sadly, those who resolve to free themselves from their sins wind in an even worse form of slavery: slavery to the Law. Trying to overcome sin by being a better spouse or parent or friend, by striving to be more honest and diligent and selfless is futile because try as hard as you might, you can’t do it. You can memorize the 10 commandments and vow every day to keep them and you will wind up dead before you do it. As natural born sinners we can’t overcome sin nor can we keep the Law and so we were slaves to both – unable to free ourselves.

 

But Christ has set us free. Last week we heard how: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law (Galatians 4:4-5). Remember those two big, technical terms from last week: Christ’s active and passive obedience? Christ has set us free from the Law by keeping it perfectly as our substitute – by lifting that yoke off of our shoulders and covering us with his righteousness through Baptism (Galatians 3:27). And having kept the Law for us, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem and carried the burden of our sins to the cross, to absorb God’s wrath and sin’s punishment as our substitute. And his work is completely, absolutely, finished (John 19:30). As a baptized believer you must stand firm in this message of freedom: you stand before God completely righteous, completely justified – free from the consequences of sin and the demands of the Law – through faith in Christ.

 

Don’t let anyone rob you of that freedom. Don’t let anyone tell you that you must do this or that, you must have this experience, you must be a better person to be saved. Don’t rob yourself of that freedom by turning back to your good works, your charity, your service as your confidence for salvation – because if you do, you’re becoming a slave all over again. Instead, stand fast, stand firm, in the freedom Christ died and rose to give you. But, remember, this is a Janus verse: it not only looks behind but it looks ahead. You are freed from sin and the Law but you are not free to use this liberty however you choose. In other words, having lifted us up out of the ditch on one side of the narrow road of freedom – the ditch of legalism; Paul now looks to keep us out of the ditch on the other side.

 

Paul describes this ditch in detail: You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature…the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. The ditch on the other side of the road is the abuse of Christian freedom as a license to sin. Paul says that these acts of the self-centered, sinful nature are obvious; but I wonder if that’s true anymore. A 2015 Barna poll showed that a majority of people in America think that not recycling is more immoral than viewing pornography. [1] We don’t have to even venture out past those doors to find people who secretly think that homosexuality is a defensible lifestyle, that living together outside of marriage or getting an easy “no-fault” divorce is ok because God really wants us to be happy. Then Paul mentions sins against the 1st commandment: idolatry and witchcraft. Lutherans especially are familiar with the phrase “you don’t have to go to church to be saved.” And that’s true. You don’t have to go to church, you don’t have to read your bible, you don’t even have to be Lutheran to be saved (just don’t tell anyone I said that!). To suggest otherwise would be legalistic. But if you use that freedom as a license to spend the summer ignoring the means of grace in favor of sports, fishing, camping, vacations and parties – you not only have abused your Christian freedom but you have cut yourself off from the God’s grace and revealed that you are really an idolater.  

 

And if that’s not damning enough, the majority of the sinful acts Paul mentions (8 of 15) apply to social interaction within a community – a Christian congregation like those in Galatia, or in McFarland, like Risen Savior. Do you ever wonder why more of our members don’t attend important quarterly meetings or volunteer to serve on vital committees? Is it because of the biting and devouring Paul mentions in verse 15? Is it because they seem to have a tense and argumentative atmosphere, because we are so quick to judge or heap shame on others when they don’t live up to our “standard” of behavior, because we demand others do things we aren’t willing to do or because approach decisions with an utterly selfish, “my way or the highway” mentality? This should not, cannot be. In fact, Paul says that those who make a practice of such divisive and self-centered behaviors have no place in the kingdom of God. And make no mistake, the one thing every one of these acts of the flesh have in common is that they are utterly selfish and “me” centered. But Christ didn’t free you to serve ourselves, he freed you from serving yourself. Now, this doesn’t mean that if we have committed those sins (which we all have) that we can’t be saved. These sins are not unforgivable. Jesus died for these sins too; he has erased them from our record forever. But Paul’s warning stands: anyone who makes a practice, a habit, a lifestyle of living in these sins will find themselves shut out of heaven.

 

Because the freedom which Christ died to give us is not freedom to serve the sinful flesh, but freedom of another kind: to serve one another in love. Yes, I know it sounds contradictory, but the Greek literally says that we are freed to be slaves – slaves to one another. And what does it look like to serve one another in love? The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Wait a minute, I thought Paul spent 4 chapters arguing that we are free from the Law, what gives? We are free from obedience to the Law – as far as our relationship with God goes. Christ has satisfied God in our place. But we still owe a debt of love to one another (Romans 13:8) and the Law still serves the all-important role of defining and guiding what love for others looks like. In other words, while we are freed from the Law as a means of serving and pleasing God (after all, God doesn’t need our service (Acts 17:24-25)) – that frees us to fulfill our real obligation: to serve one another in love.

 

It’s important to note here that Paul doesn’t use imperatives but indicatives to describe this life of freedom; he doesn’t say you must do these things, he says you will do these things, naturally, inevitably. We don’t love others to become Christian or to remain Christian, we love others because we are Christians – because we know how God loved and served us in Christ! Just as a good tree bears good fruit (Matthew 7:17) so Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The first thing to note is that in contrast to the acts of the flesh; the fruit of the Spirit consists of changed attitudes – because where the heart is changed, where the tree is made good, good fruit will inevitably follow. The second thing to note is that these are not the product of our hard work and effort, but the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Set free from spending all our time and energy trying (and failing) to please God – we are now free to joyfully serve others in love. And against such things there is no law. That’s a dramatic irony – but you get the point, right? No law in the world forbids or restricts these fruits – you are free to be as loving, joyful, patient, kind and self-controlled as you want.

 

But if we are free to produce as much fruit of the Spirit as we want, why do we so often find ourselves going back to our old sinful ways? The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. The most violent war going on in this world is one that will never appear in news headlines – it’s the war going on in your heart and mine between the Old Adam and our New Self. Unlike the rest of the unbelieving world which remains completely enslaved to the sinful nature, we Christians are torn – so that what [we] want to do [we] do not do, but what [we] hate [we] do (Romans 7:15). And this war will not end until God kills this flesh once and for all and takes us to heaven.

 

But that doesn’t mean the outcome is uncertain, because those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. No honorable Roman would ever cast crucifixion in a positive light. Crucifixion was such a brutal and gruesome form of execution that it was reserved only for slaves and the very worst criminals. Paul’s point is that there is no reforming, no reasoning with the sinful flesh – the only thing to do with it is kill it without pity or mercy. That’s what the Holy Spirit for you through Holy Baptism. He nailed that sinful flesh to the cross to die. But, if you know anything about crucifixion, you know that death doesn’t come immediately. The sinful nature will claw and struggle to get down, to regain control of your life – and you will be tempted to help pull the nails out for him. The only solution is to return to baptism through repentance. That’s what repentance is: to hold out your sins and your sinful nature to God and plead with him to put this ugly beast to death once again.  

 

And, finally, Paul says that this inner transformation will produce visible results since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. These are military terms. He’s picturing a military parade where a disciplined squad of soldiers marches down the street in perfect sync with one another. This is what the Church looks like that is standing firm in Christian freedom. We walk in sync with the Spirit and with each other, not out of fear or guilt, but because we have been set free by Christ to serve one another. Yes, we will continue to stumble and fall along the way – but, freed by Christ from our sins of the past frees us to look forward in service to others – and that’s what it means to stand firm in your Gospel freedom

 

Martin Luther summarized these verses beautifully when he wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” [2] You are free; free from sin and the Law; you are free to serve others in love. Stand firm in that freedom because that’s the freedom which Christ died to give you. Amen.  


[1] https://www.barna.com/research/porn-in-the-digital-age-new-research-reveals-10-trends/

[2] AE 31:344

Galatians 3:23-4:7 - Christ Became a Slave So That We Might Become Children - July 14, 2019

Have you ever felt that your whole life, your whole being was under the control of someone else? Someone who claims authority over you and possession of you. Someone who tells you what to do and when to do it – when to eat, when to sleep, when to work, who to hang out with, how to think, speak and act – from sunup to sundown. This someone pays you nothing, gives no breaks, is quick to criticize and gives no credit for a job well-done. You exist at his pleasure: you own nothing; he owns it all, from your food to your clothes to whatever kind of roof he chooses to put over your head. You are under his thumb, his eye, his control in every conceivable way, every single day. No, I’m not describing your job or marriage. This is a description of slavery. Have you ever been a slave? Are you sure? We’ll come back to that. Broadly speaking, we’ve all experienced that situation in our lives – and there are many individuals who still are; it’s called being a child. Of course, we all know there’s a big difference between being a slave and being a child: a slave is truly oppressed and enslaved while a child is being trained and protected – although children may not see it that way. Keeping this in mind will help us understand what Paul means in these verses which we will consider under the theme: Christ became a slave so that we might become children.

 

“Believing in Christ is not enough for salvation; you must also obey the OT Law to be saved” – this was the message the rival teachers were preaching to the Christians in Galatia (e.g., Galatians 5:4). In the heat of controversy, you might expect Paul to throw the Law out altogether; to argue that it has no role in Christianity. But he doesn’t do that. He instead clarifies the proper role of the Law: Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. Have you ever felt yourself enslaved, imprisoned by the Law? If not, that’s not a good thing. It means you either don’t know what the Law demands of you – in which case you should open up your Catechism; or it means that you don’t think God is serious about his Law – in which case you need to reread the conclusion to the 10 commandments. Anyone who has taken God’s Law seriously knows how brutal a slave master it is. How every morning you wake up the Law is there, spelling out God’s will for our lives, it’s just ten items long and yet they’re 10 things that we are naturally opposed to, that grate against our idea of being independent and autonomous and free-willed. All day long the Law is there watching, analyzing, judging our thoughts, words, and actions – stinging and shaming us when we disobey, creating fear and guilt and remorse, offering no encouragement, no support, no congratulations when we do obey (because obedience is nothing more and nothing less than our duty (Luke 17:10)). And at the end of every single day, the Law issues its stern and unforgiving evaluation: you are guilty, guilty of breaking every one of God’s commandments, guilty of disregarding your Creator’s will and following your own instead. This verdict demands death (Ezekiel 18:20). If you’ve experienced this – then you know what it’s like to be a slave to the Law. This is the Law’s job. The Law doesn’t hear excuses or appeals, it doesn’t care about intentions or feelings, the Law is not about mercy and forgiveness but threats and judgment and damnation. But, the good news in this verse is found in that little word until – the law only can enslave, imprison us until faith [is] revealed.

 

So Paul shifts the image somewhat in verse 24: So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. That’s a poor, misleading translation. Better would be the law was our chaperone until Christ, so that we might be justified by faith. The Law doesn’t lead to Christ, only the Gospel does that, but the Law was our chaperone until Christ came. The Greek word is paidogagos from which we get our English “pedagogue.” In the ancient Roman Empire, a wealthy father would assign one of his slaves to serve as the “pedagogue” for his son. That slave would be the boy’s guardian, his escort, his chaperone to make sure that he got to school and back safely – and that he didn’t go off on his own, as boys so often do. The “pedagogue” was not the teacher – his job was to ensure that the child got to the teacher. Paul explains further at the beginning of chapter 4: what I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. From the child’s perspective, he’s no different than a slave – he doesn’t have free will, he must go where his chaperone leads. There’s a difference though. Eventually, the child would outgrow his need for his chaperone – he would finally be liberated, free to assume his rightful place as child and heir.

 

That’s how the law functioned in our lives – it served as our “pedagogue” to make sure we got where we needed to go. How does the Law – which always convicts, always condemns, always crushes, always commands us to do things we cannot do – get us where we need to go? Kind of like a toothpaste tube. The Law closes off all other avenues to salvation. The Law shows us that we will never, ever get right with God on our own. The Law with its unchanging demands and unrelenting pressure squeezes repentance and cries for mercy out of us. The Law cannot save us, only Christ can. But before we can get to Christ, we need to see our need for his salvation – which is the first and primary use of the Law. That’s why we need to hear the law preached to us week after week – to show us our sin and our need for a Savior.

 

But once the law has done its job of exposing our sin and revealing our need, then the Law has to get out of the way. Paul goes on Now that faith (a reference to the object of faith – Christ) has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. Because now you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. What we couldn’t do through the Law God has done for us in Christ: given us a place in his family. Like those boys in ancient Rome who reached the age of maturity, we no longer need the law to supervise us, chaperone us, enslave us. Now we are treated as sons of God, with all the freedom and privilege that entails. (By the way, when Paul talks about “sons” here, he is in no way excluding women, but in that culture the only sons normally received an inheritance – and ladies, that includes you.)

 

The great question is: how did this happen? How did we go from being slaves to sons – and not only sons, but heirs of a heavenly inheritance? All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Whereas human nature will try to work out all sorts of complicated ways to earn our way into God’s family – try harder, do more good than bad, follow a complex set of rituals and ceremonies – the Gospel solution is simple: be baptized. Your baptism was your adoption into God’s family because in baptism you were clothed with Christ. In the Roman world, your clothing said a lot about you. It told the world where you were from, whether you were rich or poor, a slave or nobleman. In Baptism God clothed you with Christ, his righteousness, his holiness, his status. So that when God looks at you he sees Christ and the words God spoke over his Son at the Jordan River: this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased (Matthew 3:17) now apply to you.

 

And what’s more, in God’s family there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul is not saying that we are all equal in this world. This isn’t the great progressive social dream – where all distinctions melt away so we become some big genderless, faceless, nebulous blob. Paul is not describing a change in worldly status, but a change in status before God. Out there we are still men and women, parents and children, employers and employees – but in here, before God, we are one in Christ – equally sinful and equally forgiven. This transformation is far more revolutionary and effective than any kind of social engineering proposed by our world today. Just look around: in a society that seeks to divide and conquer, we stand united in Christ’s Church; bound together not by our own will-power or effort but by our common baptism, common faith, common confession, and common Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).

 

But there’s more: If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Do you remember the promises God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12? I will make you into a great nation…I will make your name great…I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2-3). The false teachers who had come to Galatia were telling the Christians there that they had to become Jewish by obeying the OT Law in order to claim Abraham as their father. Paul says that if you have been baptized, if you belong to Christ, you are Abraham’s descendent and you receive the benefit of all the promises God made to him. You are a member of Abraham’s nation in the Christian church. You are under the perpetual blessing and protection of God – which he will give you yet again at the end of the worship service. God is leading through this dark world to the Promised Land of heaven. All the promises God gave to Abraham – whether you are genetically related to him or not – are yours through faith in Christ.

 

There’s got to be a catch, right? It can’t be that easy. That’s right, it wasn’t. It cost God dearly to give us a place in his family: when the time had fully come, God sent his Son (Take that to heart. When God decided to save you, he didn’t send more laws, he sent his Son!), born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. To free us from our slavery, God sent his Son to be born of Mary in a cattle stall in Bethlehem, one with us and subject to the very same Law we are. Unlike us, he was up to the challenge of carrying the yoke of the Law, fulfilled its demands, perfectly. He was circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), presented in the temple on the 40th day (Luke2:22-24), he came to the Temple for all of the appointed feasts and festivals (Luke 2:41-52), he loved God with his whole heart and he loved his neighbor as himself. The free, all-powerful, independent Son of God became a slave to the law and did everything the law requires. That’s called Jesus’ active obedience – he actively obeyed the Law in our place. But the Law required one more thing. The Law required death to be paid as the wage for sin (Romans 6:23). Holy, sinless Jesus willingly allowed himself to be nailed to a cross in our place to receive the punishment we deserved. This is called Jesus’ passive obedience. Jesus’ submission to slavery to the Law is your salvation. Jesus has liberated us from slavery to the Law by obeying it and suffering it’s punishment for us, in our place. He became a slave so that you might become God’s child.

 

And you bear evidence of this changed status right now: because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” If you can call God your Father – and not righteous judge or harsh slave master – and mean it, then you are no longer a slave, you are a child of God. Some have understood “Abba” as the equivalent of “daddy.” But, Paul’s point here is not to express intimacy but rather status. You have every right to call God your Father, every right to ask him anything, every right to expect him to keep all of his promises to you because God has freely adopted you as his child. While some of us may have suffered at the hands of earthly fathers or mothers, have experienced the pain of a broken home or broken marriage, or maybe struggled with our identity – the assurance the Spirit of Christ gives you in your heart is that nothing in the universe can separate you from the love of God your heavenly Father (Romans 8:39). It’s no longer about who you are, it’s about whose you are – and in Christ you are God’s child.  

 

And so you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. Who are you? In Christ, you are no longer the sum total of who you are and what you’ve done – that would make you a slave again to the Law. No, Christ lived and died as a slave so that you might be called a child of God and heir of eternal life. No matter where you come from or what you’ve done – through Baptism that is whose you are! Amen.

Galatians 2:15-21; 3:10-14 - The Gospel Reveals Two Kinds of People - July 7, 2019

“There are only two kinds of people in the world…” We’ve all heard that opening line, and know that there are seemingly infinite ways to finish it. Some are an attempt at humor: “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who are Greek…and those who want to be Greek.” (from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who think the Three Stooges are hilarious…and women.” Others are attempts at bumper sticker philosophy: “There are only two kinds of people in the world: people who accomplish things…and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.” (Mark Twain) “There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who work hard…and those who let them.” Finally, there is C.S. Lewis’ great summation of mankind: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “[Your] will be done,”…and those to whom God says, in the end, “[Your] will be done.” (The Great Divorce) In our text, the Apostle Paul chips in his own version. [1]

 

It’s almost impossible not to divide the world into two different camps, isn’t it? There seems to be something inherent in our nature that seeks to divide and distinguish people: there are Packers’ fans…and we won’t even mention those other teams, there are Republicans and Democrats, there are “my kind of people” and “everyone else.” And this isn’t just a 21st century phenomenon. According to Paul, in the 1st century, there were people like him, Jews by birth, and then there were ‘Gentile sinners.’ How did Paul come up with this division? From Bible History. In the Old Testament, there was Israel – the children of Abraham and God’s chosen people; and then there were the nations – and what separated them was not only genealogy but the great big wall of civil, ceremonial, and moral laws God had given Israel on Sinai. Jews believed that because they had the Law, they were righteous – and that Gentiles, because they didn’t, were sinners in God’s eyes. And this “two kinds” concept is not just a relic from the Old Testament. Think of Jesus’ description of Judgment Day in Matthew 25: there are the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). In Revelation, there are those who wash their robes that they may have the right to…go through the gates into the city…and outside are the dogs (and those are Jesus’ words!) (Revelation 22:14-15) Apparently there is something to this “two kinds of people” thing. But in Galatians 2 and 3, Paul wants us to see beyond just the ethnic and religious distinctions between Jew and Gentile.

 

Paul goes on: we who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. He’s saying that even the Jews who have the Law of God know that it cannot justify them, earn them a not-guilty verdict, from God. You might say that Paul has shifted his perspective; there are still two kinds of people, but the division isn’t between Jew and Gentile but between those who try to justify themselves and those who stand justified by faith in Christ. And that’s where we will end up today. But there’s an important middle step that we can’t afford to skip over.

 

The all-important middle step is that, in the most fundamental way there is only one kind of person in this world: sinners, people who have disobeyed God’s holy will, stepped across his forbidden line, fallen short of his demands, and earned his wrath and punishment. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12). And this was true long before Abraham, long before there was any distinction between Jew and Gentile. This became true the moment Adam fell into sin – and, like it or not, we are all related to Adam.

 

How did Paul come to this realization? How did he arrive at such a dramatic shift in perspective? This was not the result of Paul’s research or experience or philosophical ponderings. It was the result of a divine encounter with the living Lord Jesus (Acts 9). Jesus destroyed Paul’s comfortable distinction between Jew and Gentile. In fact, Jesus destroys any and all distinctions we may fabricate. And we all do it, right? Here’s how it works: we find and then fixate on people who have so screwed up their lives that we look good by comparison. The law-based standard by which we judge ourselves becomes: I may not be perfect, but I’m sure better than that guy. That’s called self-justification. And, in our heads at least, in may seem to work. You may speed a little – but that guy must be going 15 over. You may let a lustful thought linger for a bit – but at least you haven’t had an affair. You may really hate some people – but at least you don’t act on it. You may slack off at work when the boss isn’t looking, but at least you get more done than Joe down the hall. You may not have family devotions or teach your children to pray or answer “here am I” when the call goes out for volunteers – but at least you come to church – unlike some people you know. Those are all just variations on the standard: “I may not be perfect, but I’m better than most.” But self-justification dies when it is confronted with Jesus. Because Jesus wasn’t just good, he wasn’t just moral, he wasn’t just better than some people, he didn’t just obey some of the Law some of the time, he was holy, sinless, pure, unblemished. He was exactly what God created Adam and Eve to be and exactly what God demands us to be. If you want to compare yourself to someone – it must be Jesus. If you want to know the kind of life God demands from you – Jesus is it. And who measures up to him? No one! Compared to Jesus we are all filthy, disgusting sinners – regardless of our good works and good intentions. No one measures up, so Paul makes the corporate confession for us all: by observing the law no one will be justified.

 

And so, if there are really two kinds of people in the world, then it actually breaks down this way: there is Jesus Christ, the Son of God who lived a perfect, flawless, obedient life before God and men. And then there’s the rest of us: sinners. That realization hit Paul like a ton of bricks. Proud, moral, self-righteous Paul became a man who called himself the worst of sinners in a letter to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15).

 

And what’s true of Paul is true of every one of us. That’s why, in a strange and terrifying way, those who believe themselves to be the most pious, the most righteous, the most moral are in the most spiritual danger. They are in the position of Paul before he met Jesus, who trusted his own works to satisfy God, to earn a verdict of “not-guilty” in his courtroom (Philippians 3:3-11). They are King David – who imagine that as long as they keep their sin out of the public eye that God will be fooled. They are the Pharisees who felt they deserved to eat with Jesus and were appalled that Jesus would acknowledge, much less forgive, a known sinful woman (Luke 7:36-39). Today, they may be those who feel self-justified because of their strict adherence to the laws of tolerance and diversity, because they stand up for all the “right” causes, because they join the social media mob in heaping hatred and scorn on anyone who dares to cross the line of political correctness. Or, “they” may be people like us: who are so sickened by the moral depravity in society around us that we believe that just because we are pro-life or pro-marriage or pro-religious freedom, or because we read the Bible and go to church that we stand righteous before God. Don’t get the wrong idea; it’s not that those things are inherently evil – it’s that they cannot justify us before God. Why? Because all who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law. We cannot justify ourselves before God because we have not kept God’s Law perfectly. (Just consider the 8th commandment. Try going one day without telling a lie – even a little white one. Have you even succeeded so far today?) Self-justification in all of its forms ends in death – eternal death – because trust in works leaves no room trust in Christ.

 

Wait a minute. I thought Jesus was just the Holy One whose perfect life sets the example that puts us all to shame. Well, yes that’s true. If you look at Jesus through the lens of the Law, that’s all he is: a good example. But he’s also the one whose perfect obedience climaxed when he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)! Or, as Paul put it: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.

 

So Paul points us away from ourselves and our failed obedience and instead points us to Christ and his perfect obedience and says that justification and life can only be found in him. Listen again: I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. So here are the options Paul is laying out for the Galatians (and us) to consider: 1) you can stand before God’s judgement seat dressed in the tattered robes of your own righteousness, your own obedience and hope to justify yourself; or 2) you can confess with Isaiah that all [your] righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6), tear them off in repentance, and rejoice that God has credited Jesus’ perfect life to your account. Here’s how the Law and Gospel function properly in my life: The Law shows me that in here, in myself, there is nothing good (Romans 7:18), just sin, condemnation and death. The Law kills me by showing that there’s no hope in me or my life – it must come from outside of me. And Christ and his cross and his promise are certainly outside of myself – and that’s the Gospel.

 

The Gospel, the good news, is that God has given us the righteousness he demands of us in Christ. The Gospel is not advice. It’s not directions on how to be better. It’s not new rules to help us fix our lives – because, as anyone who has tried to change a bad habit knows, we cannot fix ourselves. Only in Christ and the good news of what he has done for us do we find life. To put it another way, justification is not something we earn, it is a gift; a gift that we can only receive by faith. It’s the gift God gave us in Baptism, where we received the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), where we were baptized into his death and his resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). It’s the gift we receive week after week in the Absolution where Jesus continues to stand behind the promise he made to his first disciples in John 20: If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven (John 20:23). That gift is given in an unforgettable way in the Lord’s Supper, where Christ not only joins his own body and blood with the bread and the wine, but he gives himself to us so that we can all say as we walk away from this table: I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Do you sense how personal Christ’s crucifixion was for Paul? Yes, Jesus died for the world – but Paul couldn’t get over the fact that he died for him! Make Paul’s truth your truth. Jesus didn’t just die for the world, he died for you. And his death and resurrection is what justifies you (Romans 4:25), makes you right with God, and gives you life now and forever.

 

Martin Luther summarized all of this in just two sentences: “Now the true meaning of Christianity is this: that a man first acknowledge, through the Law, that he is a sinner, for whom it is impossible to perform any good work… The second step is this: If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come by works; but God has sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.” [2] So the comedians and arm-chair philosophers are right: there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are those who remain dead before God because they try and fail to justify themselves and there are those who are alive, justified through faith in Christ. To put it very simply: do you want God to judge you based on your life or Christ’s? God help us to look away from ourselves to Christ for our justification and salvation. Amen.


[1] Based on the outline of a sermon written by Rev. Larry M. Vogel (Concordia Pulpit Resources)

[2] AE 26:126

Galatians 1:11-24 - Proofs of the Gospel's Power - June 30, 2019

Today is the second of six consecutive weeks in which we will be walking through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week we heard Paul’s bold and uncompromising declaration that there is no Gospel other than the one that proclaims salvation by grace alone through Christ’s merits alone to God’s glory alone. If the Gospel of Christ alone saves, the clear implication is that all other messages, all other paths, all other religions are false and lead to hell. But how can we be so sure? Isn’t it arrogant and unloving to say that billions of Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, agnostics and atheists are going to hell if they do not repent? How can we be sure that the Bible is true when it seems so out of touch with the times, especially in regard to the things it says about the Lord’s Supper, the roles of men and women, church fellowship, marriage and sexuality? How do we know that the Gospel is God’s Word and not just a manmade idea? Those aren’t new questions. They were also on the minds of the Christians living in Galatia. They needed to know why they should trust Paul’s Gospel and not the “other” and “different” gospel being preached by the rivals who had come after him. These are challenging questions, but Paul doesn’t waver. He steps up with three proofs of the Gospel’s power.

 

While Paul ended last week with harsh curses, he strikes a completely different tone today. We see that he is genuinely, pastorally concerned about the souls of the Galatian Christians. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Why does Paul make this point? Well, it seems that one of the rivals’ critiques of Paul was that he didn’t get his message from the other apostles in Jerusalem (as they did!) and therefore couldn’t be trusted. And…Paul agrees with them. “You’re right, I didn’t get my doctrine from the apostles in Jerusalem…I got it from Christ himself.” And we know the details: that one day around noon when Paul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians there the Lord Jesus struck Paul blind, called him to repentance, converted him through the Gospel, and called him to be an apostle – all attested to by multiple witnesses (Acts 9). Now, you might say: what does that prove? Many religions claim divine revelation. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have spoken to an angel named Moroni. Muhammad claimed to have received the Koran from the angel Gabriel. The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses claims to receive progressive (“new”) revelations from God. Tune into almost any televangelist and you will hear them talk about “what God revealed to them.” So what makes Paul’s Gospel any different? We’ll get to that in a moment.

 

But let’s make one thing clear: Christianity is grounded in the truth that the Gospel is not manmade but originates with God himself. That’s why you can trust every word of it. You can bank your life and eternity on it. If it were only manmade words, manmade opinions and idea that I stood up here spouting – you would have every right to judge it, to take it or leave it or change it or dismiss it altogether. There is no reason you should care what I think – I’m a sinful human just like you. But if what I preach to you is the Word of God, then you do need to listen very closely, because it’s not really me, but God speaking to you. That’s the only thing that gave Paul the boldness to say that there is no other gospel and the only thing that gives me the confidence to say that if you believe what is preached here, you will be saved. In a broader sense, this is why we can’t just deny, dismiss or “update” the teachings of Scripture to fit the culture or the times. We don’t dare call the doctrine and practice of church fellowship – politically incorrect practices like closed communion or refusing to worship with false teaching church bodies – unloving; we don’t dismiss the Biblical roles of men and women as sexist; we don’t dare call it a cute but unrealistic idea to expect that sexual behavior should be restricted to a man and woman within marriage. These doctrines and practices are not mere human traditions, opinions, or ideas – they are the very words of God which he inspired human prophets to preach and teach and write down. We call this verbal inspiration – that every word of the Bible is God’s Word – and therefore true and trustworthy. (see also John 14:26; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21)

 

But knowing that his claim of divine revelation doesn’t end the controversy, Paul goes on to paint a portrait of the Gospel’s power: for you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me… What is it that sets the Christian Gospel apart from every other religion? One word: grace. Every other religion in the world (and, sadly, many false forms of Christianity) teaches that salvation comes by works, obedience to a set of laws or rules. The final proof that the Christian Gospel alone is divine is its foundation in God’s grace. Paul points to his own life as an example. He brings up his own shameful past, not as an emotionally manipulative “testimonial”, but as evidence that neither his conversion nor his message were his own idea. Why not? Because he was extremely zealous to destroy the Gospel he now proclaimed. He savagely persecuted the church of God and even imagined that he was serving God by doing so. He had cooperated (and likely supervised) the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:54-8:1) and was headed to Damascus to find some more Christians to round up and arrest (Acts 9). That’s how spiritually blind and dead he was. Paul was just as capable of turning himself from unbelief to faith as those boys we heard about in our other lessons were able to bring themselves back from the dead. But Jesus did the impossible: he breathed life into Paul; he created faith in his unbelieving heart. And when you read Paul’s letters, you see that he just couldn’t get over God’s grace to him, grace made him what he was, grace was what he preached and he didn’t dare take that grace for granted.  

 

And neither can we. While I don’t think any of us had a former life where we arrested and killed Christians and called it God’s work – we were all born dead in sin, blind to Christ, and enemies of God (Ephesians 2:1-3). In fact, we continue to bear evidence of our depraved nature whenever we reject God’s will for our lives or begin to imagine that we have somehow earned or deserved God’s favor. We bear evidence of it if we think we deserve some credit for coming to faith – or, at least, remaining in faith. But grace exposes the lies. Like Paul, left to ourselves, we would still be doomed to destruction. We contribute nothing to our salvation – God does it all, from beginning to end. It was nothing but grace that led God to send his Son into this wretched world and nothing but grace that led Jesus to willingly go to the cross to save us – long before we were born. It was nothing but grace that led God to give us life, to choose us, baptize us, give and preserve us in the one true faith. And when we die, our rock-solid confidence is that it will be nothing but God’s grace that opens the gates of heaven to us. This is what sets the Christian Gospel apart from every other “gospel” that is preached. Grace is what proves that the Gospel is divine. This grace is what Paul received directly from Christ; this grace is what Paul preached to the Galatians – and this grace is what we still receive and preach today.

 

To review: what proof do we have that faith in the Christian Gospel is the only way to be saved? First, it came from God, not from man. Second, the heart of the Gospel is something that no man ever would have dreamed up: salvation by grace. Which leads to the final proof: this Gospel has the power to change lives. It certainly changed Paul, didn’t it? He went from being a “Jew’s Jew”, dedicated to obeying the Law of Moses and hunting Jesus’ disciples to a “Christian’s Christian”, dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth. From persecutor to preacher – that’s the dramatic turnaround the Gospel worked in Paul’s life. To the extent that the Christians in Judea (who were likely well aware of Paul’s prior persecution of the Church) had to confess: “the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”

 

The gospel changes lives. In some ways, this last point may be the hardest for us to believe. Sure, we can see it in Paul’s life and maybe we can even see it in the lives of others. But what about when we look in the mirror? When I look at my life, I don’t see as much change as I should. I still lack the holiness God demands and I still rebel against God’s will for my life in more ways than I can count. And I’m not alone and neither are you. Paul saw the same lack of progress in his own life even after his dramatic conversion and call to apostleship. He admits as much in Romans 7: I do not understand what I do…For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing (Romans 7:15, 19) Why? Because even after conversion, our sinful nature clings to us and keeps coming to life and keeps trying to control our lives day after day. That’s why we not only need God’s grace to bring us to faith, we need his grace to keep us in the faith. That’s why we need to repent daily and daily find God’s forgiveness in Christ.

 

And this, this cycle of daily repentance and running to Christ for forgiveness – is how the Gospel changes our lives. Where’s the proof, you might ask? Well, why are you here? There are a million other things you could be doing on a summer Sunday morning – and yet here you are to listen to God’s Word and receive his gifts. The Gospel did that. Want more proof? I don’t talk about giving offerings very often – and yet you keep bringing them. Your service to our Risen Savior is unpaid and often unrecognized – but you keep volunteering. But there’s proof even closer to home. I know that we all have struggles with mental or physical or emotional health, we all have issues with loneliness or in our marriage or our families – and the world offers easy outs, escape through drugs or divorce or just ending it all – but you don’t give up, you keep working, keep forgiving, keep loving as God has loved you. In a society that is determined to annihilate the gender roles God has given men and women, that has all but destroyed the institution of marriage, that regards human life as cheap and disposable, that preaches accountability to no one but yourself – you stand by the truth of Scripture – in spite of the consequences. Some of you have even sacrificed job opportunities, social standing, friendships and even peace in your family for the sake of Christ. What else on earth could explain those life changes other than the power of the Gospel? But it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic. Simply the fact that you come here to willingly and publicly confess that you are a sinner who deserves nothing from God but death and judgment – while simultaneously clinging to his promise of mercy and forgiveness in Christ – is proof that the Gospel has changed your heart and life. And so, if you’re ever frustrated at the lack of change you see in your life or the lives of the people around you, don’t buckle down and try harder, but trust more in God’s promise to work real, tangible change through the power of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. God works real change through the Gospel. Paul is proof and so are you.

 

Until the day you die the devil will never stop trying to lead you to doubt the Gospel’s power. He will try to convince you that it’s just one of many equally valid religious messages out there, that it’s just a manmade message and can be changed or ignored like any other manmade message or, as he did in Galatia, to convince you that the Gospel is too good to be true – that you have to do something to be saved. When those attacks come, pull out the sword of the Spirit, remember these verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here is real, solid proof of the Gospel’s saving power: it comes from God and not from man, it proclaims God’s unimaginable grace – that salvation is God’s free gift from beginning to end for Christ’s sake, and this Gospel has and will continue changing lives until the end of time. Amen.