Jeremiah 6 / 1 Peter 2 / Mark 16 - Our Great Heritage: Lutheran Worship - December 3, 2017

I.                    The Historic Voice of the Church


New and novel. The latest tech and the most innovative ideas. That’s what our culture craves, right? The newest, more sure-fire diet plan. Cars that don’t need you, because they drive themselves. New medicines and medical procedures to enhance and extend life. Is that always true? When diet plans are reviewed by actual doctors, a shocking number are found to be ineffective or unhealthy. How comfortable would you be letting your car merge you onto the Beltline or drive you through the UW campus? How would you feel if your doctor walked into your room and said, “Well, we’ve never tried this before, but we’re pretty sure it’s going to work.”  If we are hesitant to place our health and safety in the hands of unproven technologies – how should we feel about the care of our immortal souls? Would you rather put your eternity in the care of something brand-new, that is constantly evolving or something that has been tested and proven over the course of hundreds of years? If you fall into the latter category, then you just might be a liturgical, confessional, Lutheran.


Did you know that Martin Luther never wanted his followers to call themselves Lutheran? He understood that if they did, they would be accused of being rebels rather than reformers and be labeled a faction rather than a continuation of the church founded by Christ and his apostles. He was right. Luther was frequently labeled a radical heretic by his critics – but that doesn’t mean their criticism was true. In 1524, Luther wrote “We teach nothing new. We teach what is old and what the apostles and all godly teachers have taught.” [1] Near the end of his life, Luther said “we can prove that our faith is not new and of unknown origin, but that it is the oldest faith of all, which began and continued from the beginning of the world.” [2] Luther never wanted to revolutionize the church. He wanted to reform it – by getting rid of the corruption and returning to the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3)


But neither did Luther insist on tradition simply for tradition’s sake. When it came to reforming the worship service, Luther faced a choice: should he innovate or stick with the worship history had handed down? In a similar way, Israel was at a crossroads when God sent them the prophet Jeremiah. On one side stood the Lord and his prophet. The Lord had promised that Jerusalem would fall at the hand of the Babylonians. Jeremiah warned that the only way to spare their lives was to repent before God and surrender to the Babylonians. (Jeremiah 6:1-15) On the other side stood the false prophets. They preached a message of peace, even though God guaranteed there was no peace in their future. (Jeremiah 6:14) They tried to convince Judah’s leaders to ally themselves with other nations against the terrible Babylonians. Jeremiah pleaded with the Israelites to consider the past, to learn from their forefathers that the path to true rest is in heartfelt repentance and faith in God’s love: this is what the LORD says: stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But the ‘new’ innovative way of the false prophets would lead to nothing but death and destruction.


How does this apply to the way we worship today? For many years now there has been a ‘worship war’ in the Christian church. Some have asked “why do we insist on using an ancient liturgy, a hymnal, songs and confessions that are hundreds of years old – when the fastest growing churches have cast those aside in favor of something new and innovative?” One important reason is that the historic Christian liturgy has been proven to offer rest for struggling souls over the course of hundreds and thousands of years. When we read the poetry of King David; when we beat our chests with the tax collector, begging God for mercy; when we sing the hymns of angels; when we use the confession taught by the apostles; when we pray the words our Savior taught and listen to his institution of the Lord’s Supper; when we leave with the same blessing God gave the Israelites 3500 years ago – we don’t do it simply for the sake of tradition. We do it first as a way of recognizing that there is only one “holy Christian and apostolic church.” We don’t stand on our own but side by side with and on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us. With the prophets, apostles, and reformers we throw ourselves on God’s grace and place our trust in his unchanging Word. Like Luther, we appreciate that under God’s guiding hand, time has acted like a filter for Christian worship: it has removed the impurities and preserved the pure, life-giving Gospel.


And yet, we also acknowledge that the style and format of worship is adiaphora (neither commanded nor forbidden by God). [3] We don’t condemn those who choose to worship in a different way – as long as law and gospel are properly divided and the Sacraments are properly practiced. And when new hymns and new ways of worship are created that proclaim Christ and give God glory – we are open to implementing them. But until something better comes along, we are thankful to stand with the prophets, apostles, and reformers in worshipping our gracious God in a way that is tried and true; which has been tested by countless Christians before us who found rest for their souls in these words and hymns and songs that proclaim God’s grace and love for sinners. May God grant you that peace as we sing a song written by King David: Psalm 24.


II.                  The Participation of the Congregation


Do you consider coming to church more like going to a movie or going to meet friends for dinner? There’s a difference, right? When you go to a movie, you are a passive spectator. When you meet friends for dinner you are a participant in the meal, the conversation, the fellowship. Which situation better describes going to church? In 16th century Germany, it was more like going to a movie – if that movie was in a foreign language and you were promised that by simply showing up and paying for the ticket your sins would be forgiven. In Luther’s day, worship was conducted in Latin – a language that few average people understood; the songs were sung either by the priest or a choir of monks; and the only active participation expected from the congregation was that they drop their money into the offering plate. This didn’t happen by accident. It was (and is) part of Catholic doctrine that you don’t need to know or believe what you are doing – as long as you are going through the motions – because only the priest can speak for and to God on your behalf. At the very least, medieval worship was very condescending – in essence, people were told “you’re too stupid to understand any of this, so just shut up and listen.” But what really horrified Luther was 1) the elevation of the words of a man (the pope or priest) over the Word of God; 2) the teaching that faith didn’t matter as much as going through the motions; and 3) that only a priest or saint could go to God directly.


That horrified Luther because God’s Word says something much different: As you come to him, the living Stone you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. While in the OT God did mandate that the people of Israel could only approach him through a mediator – a priest – when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world – the curtain of sin that separated us from God was torn in two. Jesus has opened the way to God – not just for priests, but for all believers. Part of our Lutheran heritage is that when you come to worship God in his house – you are an active participant. It’s not a device to keep you awake. It’s not a way to give these vocal chords a break. We don’t sing and speak and pray together because we have to. We do it because we can! Because Jesus’ blood has paved the road directly from you to your God. Luther put it this way: “Every baptized Christian is a priest already, not by appointment or ordination…but because Christ himself has begotten him as a priest and has given birth to him in baptism.” [4]


This aspect of congregational participation still separates Lutherans from the majority of Christian churches today. Strangely enough, much of what passes for worship today is very similar to worship in the medieval Catholic church. Only the preacher can possibly understand God’s Word and you need him to tell you what it means – because he has a special connection to God. The band on the stage praises God for you, and while you may be invited to join in, you don’t know the song, can’t see the notes – plus, if you were any good, you would be up on that stage with them! What you do (serving or giving offerings) is still more important than believing the Word of God. That’s not the way Peter or Luther saw it. You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. You don’t need any mediator other than Jesus – whose blood has opened God’s throne room to you. No one stands between you and the body and blood your Savior shed for your forgiveness. We all participate in declaring the praise of the one who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light. So please stand as we confess the one, true Christian faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.


III.               The Predominance of the Gospel


What should be the main focus, the central objective of the church? Everyone has their own idea. There are those who think that the church should basically be a community service organization – like the Salvation Army. There are others who think that the church should be a legislative body – writing laws and enforcing morality. Still others want the church to be a divine babysitter – to provide daycare and recreational opportunities and singles mingles – because that’s what people want! The church, like our government, is the object of many “special interest” groups – who want it to do their bidding. Is there a problem with that? Yes. Because the church does not belong to you or me or any special interest group. The church belongs to God and Jesus is its only CEO. And he has given his church a very clear and simple mission.


He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον “Preach the good news.” God instituted the government to rule and protect and punish. (Romans 13:1-7) God created the family to provide for our physical and emotional needs. (Ephesians 6:1-4; 1 Timothy 5:8) The church’s mission is to preach. Preach what? The good news. Is the good news the secret to a happy marriage or a healthy lifestyle or an early retirement? No. The good news is that God has made the unconditional offer to the world to forgive their sins and give them eternal life in heaven – based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the good news Christ commissioned his church to proclaim to all creation. You may leave here without a better idea of how to make your life easier or your money grow – but God forbid you ever leave here without being told that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Because without that good news, nothing else matters. That’s why everything in our service – from the hymns, the liturgy, the sermon, to the church architecture (pulpit / altar / font) – centers on what God has done and is doing for us in Christ.


The medieval Catholic church – like many churches today – abandoned Christ’s commission by changing the emphasis from what God has done for us for what we must do for God. In other words, they have exchanged the law for the gospel. Luther was taught that he had to fast and pray and do penance and become a monk in order to please God. It drove him to the brink of despair. Many people today are being taught that they have to contribute 10% of their income and make a decision for Christ and change the world in order to please God. And it’s still driving them to the brink of despair. There’s no comfort or peace in do and don’t do. The only comfort we have before a holy God is that because of Jesus everything necessary to please God is DONE! Don’t misunderstand, the law has its role. The law shows us our sins, restrains wickedness, and serves as a moral compass in an obviously morally confused world. But its primary job is to serve the gospel – to make us despair of ever doing anything to earn God’s favor so that we place all of our trust in what Jesus has done for us.

So we pray for the government to wisely rule and govern. We equip and encourage families to provide for physical and emotional needs. And we demand that the church carry out her Lord’s commission: κηρύξατε τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, preach the gospel. One of the most important tools to help us do that consistently is our heritage of Lutheran worship. Worship which respects and treasures the experience of the believers who have gone before us – who found rest for their souls in Word and Sacrament. Worship which invites every believer – from the 1 year old to the 100 year old – to participate because we are all priests in God’s eyes whose worship and praise he welcomes for Jesus’ sake. Worship which holds strong against the temptation to change the focus from what God has done for us in Christ (the Gospel) to what we must do for God (the Law). As we continue our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation – give thanks to God for the gift of Lutheran worship – and its focus on Christ crucified – and ask that he would preserve this precious heritage for generations to come. Amen.  


[1] Plass, What Luther Says, 861

[2] Plass, What Luther Says, 860

[3] Formula of Concord: Thorough Declaration, Art. 10:9

[4] Plass, What Luther Says, 1139

Matthew 25:1-13 - Are You Ready? - November 26, 2017

With Thanksgiving already in the rearview mirror, it’s the question on everyone’s mind: are you ready? Have you found room on your calendar for all of the work parties, family gatherings, and other social responsibilities? Is your home decorated and your car winterized? According to retail experts, if you haven’t started your Christmas shopping yet, you’re already late. How about this one: is your bank account ready to handle the additional stress you will put on it this season? We all know how embarrassing it is to be caught unprepared – which is why the next few weeks will take on a fevered pace as everyone tries to get everything done in time. But before you leave here to consider your readiness for Christmas, Jesus has an even more important question for you: are you ready for his return? Are you prepared to meet him when he returns to take the bride, his Church, to heaven forever? Just as we are taking stock of our readiness for Christmas, this morning, Jesus urges us to take stock of our readiness for his return. Are you ready? Appearances can be deceiving. Some things cannot be shared. And when Jesus gets here, it will be too late.


As we have discovered over the past few weeks, considering the mysteries of Judgment Day and eternity is not the easiest thing for us – because this world is all we know. That’s why Jesus describes it using parables – earthly stories with heavenly meanings – like the one before us, the parable of the ten virgins. It’s a wedding story. A Jewish wedding in Jesus’ day was quite a bit different from what we are used to. Once the couple had made their public promises to one another, they were, to the world and God, married. However, even though they were technically married, the couple wouldn’t begin living together (and wouldn’t consummate the marriage) until the groom had prepared a home for his wife – which could take weeks or months. When everything was ready, the groom would travel to his bride’s home to gather her up and take her back to the home he had prepared for her and they would kick off their marriage with a huge banquet for their family and friends.


This Jewish wedding ritual forms the background of Jesus’ parable: At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. In the earthly story, the virgins are the bridal attendants who would accompany the bride and groom to their new home. But who are they spiritually speaking? Jesus is talking about the kingdom of heaven; that is, not the dwelling place of angels and saints in God’s presence – but God’s rule among people on this earth. In other words, the virgins represent the visible Christian church – the church as we can see it. In the parable, there’s no difference between the wise and foolish. All ten are wearing appropriate attire, they all have their lamps, they are all waiting for the groom. And so it is in the visible church. All members of the visible church confess their faith in Jesus Christ as God and Savior, all claim to believe what the Bible teaches, all express their hope of heaven – or else, by definition, they wouldn’t be Christians. Jesus’ parable isn’t about Muslims or atheists or the “nones” who have no time for God. He’s talking about those who consider themselves Christians. He’s talking to us.


But, just as in many areas of life, appearances can be deceiving. Jesus goes on. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The folly of the five consisted in the fact that they took their lamps – which in those days were probably long poles with cloth wrapped around the end which would be doused with oil and lit – but no extra oil. The wisdom of the wise lay in the fact that they were thinking ahead, they had prepared for any delay in the grooms arrival, the brought extra oil. The moral of the earthly story is basic common sense: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.


But what about the spiritual meaning, the meaning for us? We know from the context that Jesus is talking about Christians being prepared for his return, so we should ask: everything being equal, what separates wise Christians from their foolish counterparts? It can’t be good works, because on the surface they all looked the same. Since we can’t see this difference with our eyes, we have to ask: on the Last Day what will separate the sheep from the goats; the saved from the damned? Jesus said it himself: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) Faith is what makes the difference. Where does faith come from? Faith comes from hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17) So the oil is the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace – the sin-cleansing power he exerts through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament – which ignites the flame of faith in human hearts. (2 Timothy 1:6) If we were to use one word, the oil is God’s grace. The wise, then, are those who not only bear the external marks of Christianity – the baptismal and confirmation certificates, the church membership – but also eagerly and faithfully invite the Holy Spirit to perform his work on their hearts, to fill their hearts and lives with the grace that creates and sustains saving faith. Unlike those who believe that if you are baptized and confirmed you are all set; wise Christians make the effort to grow in grace and faith, to do what Paul described in Philippians: work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13) So are you ready for your Savior to return? Does your Christianity go more than skin deep? Appearances can be deceiving.


Especially when there is a delay. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. On a side note, Jesus reveals here that he knows our reality. Jesus knows that all Christians – the foolish and the wise – will sooner or later fall asleep. Practically speaking, this means that instead of daily asking “Lord, will today be the day?” we get wrapped up in day-to-day life. And who of us wouldn’t confess that we haven’t spent every waking moment waiting for the Lord? Jesus is not telling us to quit our jobs and withdraw from society to stare at the sky; his point is that as we go about our daily lives every decision we make, every priority we set, how we spend our time and money will be shaped by the fact that Jesus will return. (One example: parents, if you are planning to make a fat, bearded man in a red suit (with his naughty and nice lists) part of your children’s Christmas – what are you teaching them about grace – or work righteousness?)


Because just as Christmas is most definitely right around the corner; Jesus is definitely coming. At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied,’ there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ As Peter reminded us last week: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:10) When much of the world is wrapped up in the blanket of false security, when mankind’s preoccupation with satisfying his own sinful desires is at its greatest, when we least expect it – that’s when Jesus will come. And in that moment the distinction between the wise and foolish will become clear. The foolish will scurry around trying to find oil for their lamps while the wise will calmly refuel theirs. While the wise virgins’ refusal to share oil in the parable may seem mean, in the spiritual realm the foolish virgin’s request amounts to an impossibility. Saving faith is a personal possession. It can’t be shared. No, we’re not talking about evangelism – we always can and should share the Gospel message. The point here is that saving faith cannot be transfused from one individual to another. I cannot believe for you; nor you for your children, etc.


This hits home in some very emotionally charged occasions. A terrible tragedy occurs in the life of a friend – a lukewarm Christian who believes that since he comes to church on Christmas and Easter he is right with God. Until tragedy strikes – his wife dies suddenly. He cannot find comfort or consolation. He comes to you for help. You remind him of God’s providence and promises and power. He won’t see it, won’t believe it, he blames God. He says, “if only I could have faith like you.” Give me some of your oil. The daughter of one of the most respected families in the congregation is unexpectedly killed in a car accident just as she was beginning her career in a city across the country. According to her family, she still believed in Jesus as her Savior (they even made sure she packed her catechism!!). But in reality – and in spite of the encouragement she had received from her parents, pastor and church – her secular university education had convinced her that the Bible is just a man-made book, she had moved in with her boyfriend, and had not attended worship or received the Sacrament since she was confirmed. The family begs for a Christian funeral. Give her/us some of your oil. Save her from her carelessness and neglect. Grant us the assurance that she is safe with Jesus in heaven. No.


Why? That’s sounds horribly loveless! How dare you refuse to give these people the comfort they deserve! Isn’t that how many people react? But what comfort was there for the foolish virgins? What comfort can be given to the family of one who has thrown their faith away? Blaming the church for refusing to give a Christian funeral to an unbeliever is tantamount to blaming the groom – Jesus – for locking the door on the foolish virgins. Jesus is not the problem. He is standing at the door knocking. If anyone finds themselves unprepared to meet death or meet him – with hearts empty of grace and faith – they have no one to blame but themselves. There are some things you cannot share – and saving faith is one of them.


Jesus concludes this wedding story: While they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ When death arrives on our doorstep, when Jesus returns – it’s too late to go out and buy oil, too late to scramble for God’s grace, too late for anyone to come and perform spiritual CPR on your dead heart. When Jesus returns he’s not going to check your baptismal or confirmation certificate, he’s not going to ask to see the church directory – he will either know you or he won’t. Jesus knows those who confess their sins to him and beg for mercy. (John 6:37) Jesus knows those who sit at his feet and soak up his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. (Mark 3:31-35) Jesus knows those who accept his invitation to receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins. (1 Corinthians 11:26) Jesus knows those who have invited him into their homes through daily devotion, Bible study and prayer. (John 14:23-24) Does Jesus know you? Now is the time to consider that question, because when he comes to take his bride, the church, to the marriage feast in heaven, it will be too late to go out and buy the oil of his grace.


Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. It might seem like we are ending the church year on a sour note. There is a sense of urgency, there is a warning against complacency. But don’t forget what we’re waiting for: it’s the wedding feast of the Lamb! We are waiting for the consummation of everything Christ our Savior has promised us – we’re waiting for him to gather us up and take us to the home he has prepared for us in paradise. If we’re thinking: “how dare Jesus peer into my heart and question my readiness” – we’ve missed the point. We should be thinking: “who wouldn’t want to do be eagerly waiting and properly prepared for that day?” What bride wouldn’t want to recall again and again the day her fiancé proposed to her – for Christians that day was Good Friday, when Jesus surrendered himself to death on a cross, declaring once and for all his undying commitment to us? Who wouldn’t want to gaze attentively at the engagement ring he gave each of us – the day called us by name in the Sacrament of Baptism? Who wouldn’t want to sample the fare that will be available at heaven’s eternal banquet by regularly receiving the Lord’s Supper? Who wouldn’t want to daily read and cherish the love letter Jesus himself composed and compiled in the Bible – in which we hear the extremes he went to find us in the gutter of sin, clean us up, give us the proper clothes, and do everything to prepare us for eternal life in his Father’s house? Who wouldn’t want to be ready and waiting when he returns? Only a fool!! Only a fool would reject the unlimited opportunities Jesus gives to fill our hearts full of the oil of his grace.


So, are you ready? As you consider that question, don’t think of it as one more thing on your to-do list. It’s not. It’s all about what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do for you. He wants to make you ready. He wants to wash your sins away in confession and absolution. He wants to give you a regular taste of heaven – making your heart long for the real thing. He wants you to be certain that he knows you by name and has a place in heaven reserved just for you. Don’t be foolish. Let him do his work. Amen.  

2 Peter 3:3-14 - The Day of the Lord Will Come - November 19, 2017

Agree or disagree: all people – believer and non-believer alike – believe that the world as we know it will eventually come to an end. From the threat of enemies outside our borders to the cultural rot within our nation to movies and TV shows depicting a zombie apocalypse to warnings from economists that the financial markets could come crashing down to the global warming alarmists with their doomsday predictions – it seems that we can all agree that this world will come to an end. But how? When? Why? There is no consensus on these answers – not even among Christians. Which is a sad commentary on the state of American Christianity – because God has answered those questions for us in his Word. Not only does the Bible tell us when, how and why this world will end, it tells us how to prepare for it. Today the Apostle Peter assures us that the Day of the Lord will Come; in the Lord’s time, with destruction for the ungodly, but salvation for the faithful.


First of all, (of first importance!) you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” Despite the universal consensus that this world of ours will end; for 2000 years now people have laughed at the idea that the world will end – not because of global warming or world war III – but because Jesus will return in judgment. In Peter’s day, these scoffers reasoned that because people were still dying (roughly 30 years after Jesus’ ascension) just as they had before, nothing had changed. From what they could tell, everything had always gone on the same way – so what was the point of believing in Jesus and looking for his return? Today, people still use their fallen reason to argue against Jesus’ coming in Judgment. And, they think they have found proof in the un-scientific theory of evolution. This world is millions of years old, they argue, and for millions of years things have progressed, evolved according to basic, universal principles. Simple organisms evolve into complex creatures. The weak die and the strong survive according to the law of the jungle. Society and civilization are progressing in an upward, positive direction. And now they claim that with the advances of medicine and technology – given enough time and money – we are on our way to defeating death itself. Things are getting better. Things are going along just as they always have. And so there’s no reason to feel accountable to an invisible God, no reason to fear his judgment, no reason to look for Jesus’ second coming. So live free! Be happy! Do whatever makes you feel good!


In a culture that has fallen for this lie hook, line, and sinker – it can feel like a heroic struggle to hold to the truth of the Bible in spite of our unbelieving society. That may be true, but it’s not the whole truth. We hold fast to Scripture not only in spite of these scoffers, but because of them. How can pseudo-science and an ungodly society build our certainty? Because they are doing exactly what Peter predicted they would do! By laughing at the Bible’s prophecies of the end, they are proving them to be true. Whenever Stephen Hawking or Bill Nye or Bill Maher get up on their pedestal to mock your trust in Scripture, thank them, for they are validating the truth of God’s promises.


But it’s not that easy, is it? There’s a part of us that is strongly attached to this life and this world and wants to hold onto it as long as we can. Our own fallen reason wants to agree with them because the facts don’t lie. It has been 2000 years since Jesus closed his Revelation to John with the promise yes, I am coming soon. (John 22:20) 2000 years is a long time. Many generations have lived and died without seeing the fulfillment of that promise, and, in many ways, life is going on just as it always has. Are we just clinging to a delusion? A myth? If Jesus was going to return in judgment, wouldn’t it have happened already? Doesn’t the fact that we’re still here prove that Jesus is a liar?


Peter has the answer to that argument: do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. God doesn’t perceive time the way we do. That shouldn’t surprise us. We don’t even agree on our perception of time, do we? For children, Christmas seems likes its ages away. For the rest of us, it’s coming up far too quickly. Some of you might think that a 25 minute sermon seems like an eternity; if you are nodding off, it might seem like the blink of an eye. The point is that we should not be concerned that Christ has forgotten his promise. To him, a thousand years is no different than a day. Luther tried to describe this distinction. He said that we look at time like we like at a tall tree, we cannot see both ends at the same time. But God looks at the same tree perpendicularly; he sees all of it, from beginning to end at the same time. To God, Adam and the last person to be born exist in an unchanging present. (LW 30:195) So, while from our human perspective 2000 years seems like a long time, to an eternal God it is no more than a day. No matter what the scoffers say, Peter says, Jesus – who is himself the eternal God – did not lie when he said he would come soon. The day of the Lord will come – in his good time.


Whether that day is 1 or 1 thousand years away, there is no question that it will bring terrible, unexpected destruction. Peter writes: the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. The Apostle Paul concurs: now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)


Jesus will return and it will mean destruction for this world and all its wickedness – the Bible could not be clearer. So why don’t people believe it? Why do so many live as if this life is all there is? They deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. People don’t believe that Judgment is coming because they don’t believe God’s Word. They don’t want to believe that from beginning to end – not only this world but their lives hang by the thread of God’s Word and God’s command. Here is the great danger of evolution. Not only does it deny God’s creation of this world, it denies God’s judgment and destruction of this world. There can be no reconciling evolution with Christianity. It makes sense that people who believe this world is millions of years old and will continue for millions of years would have no concern about greater, eternal spiritual things. But if we believe this world was created and sustained by the Word of God, then we must believe that one day God will end it – because he has promised it.


If you’re ever tempted to doubt that just consider God’s track record. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. Peter is saying that the Flood (Genesis 6-8) is a picture of Judgment Day. Jesus himself explains: as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (Matthew 24:37-39) You may think the Flood story is only for children. But we all need to be reminded of it regularly. Why? Because so often we live as though this world is going to go on forever. We get so caught up in day-to-day life that we forget how important it is to be prepared for the end. The strange thing is that we don’t do this when it comes to other potentially dangerous situations. As winter approaches, I’d be willing to bet that we are all getting our shovels and snow blowers back in working order, changing furnace filters, getting our heavier sweaters and jackets out of the closet – in short, preparing for the coming cold weather. When we know something potentially destructive or dangerous is imminent, we try our best to be ready.


Do we have the same attitude toward Judgment Day? If we really believe it when we confess every week that [Christ] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead (Nicene Creed) – and that it could be any moment – shouldn’t we be preparing for it? The good news is that Peter says the very reason God is delaying his judgment is so that we can get ready, so that we might be prepared. He says: the Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. God never intended that the crown of his creation – mankind – should be destroyed along with the world. But just because God didn’t intend it doesn’t mean that he won’t fulfill his threat. Those who are found by Jesus still covered in sin-tattered clothes with hearts full of unbelief will be destroyed, they will perish forever in hell.


But God, in love, has provided a way out: repentance. An encouragement to live in constant readiness by daily repentance – turning from sin and turning to God – is how Peter closes: Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. This is the heart of Christianity, isn’t it? God didn’t give us the Bible to teach us how to live in this world or so that we might have our best life now. The Bible’s main purpose is to prepare us to stand in judgment before a holy God. How can we be found spotless, blameless, and at peace by Jesus when he returns? – is the question the Bible revolves around. Answering this question, providing comfort and certainty regarding this question is why our central focus here is not community service or practical life-advice, but is always on the Gospel in Word and Sacraments. It’s why we make teaching the next generation the eternal truths of God our highest priority; it’s why we are working to expand our facility – to give more and more sinners comfort and certainty regarding Christ’s return; and it’s why work tirelessly to call those who have strayed to repentance. Judgment Day is coming and all who are found dead in their sin and unbelief will be destroyed by fire along with this world.


But by God’s grace we know how we can be found spotless, blameless and at peace with our Judge – because God has revealed that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) We know that God himself began our life of repentance when he drowned our sinful nature and raised us to new life in Baptism. We know that Jesus came into this world to take our place, to stand in God’s Judgment, to be convicted and condemned to hell so that we might be acquitted and invited into eternal life. To be driven ever deeper into the good news that our Judge is none other than our Savior is why we gather week after week, year after year – however long it takes for Jesus to return – to confess our sins and receive forgiveness, so that when he does he might find us spotless, blameless, and at peace with him. Today especially, as you receive the body and blood your Savior shed for you on the cross, remember it’s twofold purpose: to point you back for comfort and certainty to Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross; and to point you ahead to his second coming in glory and judgment. As Paul wrote: whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26) So while some reject the reality of Jesus’ return in Judgment – and most are too distracted to care – you are ready and waiting for that day, because it is the day of your salvation. It’s the day when Jesus will finally save you from this world of sorrow and take you to heaven where there will be no more death or mourning or pain.


So let the scoffers scoff; their mocking is only proof the Day of the Lord will come. Or better yet, let them repent. Because the day of the Lord is coming, in the Lord’s time, with destruction for the ungodly, with salvation for the faithful. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.  

Matthew 24:15-28 - When the End Is Near - November 11, 2017

If you’ve done any amount of traveling, you’ve no doubt seen and maybe even stopped at a scenic overlook. Often these overlooks – no matter what they are overlooking, a waterfall, canyon, river, or mountain – contain informational signs or plaques which tell you what you are looking at, its history and detailed descriptions. These plaques are particularly valuable when you are planning a more involved visit to the place you are overlooking. They help you make sense of what you are seeing. And that’s very much what Jesus is doing for us in Matthew 24. He’s preparing us for his second coming. He tells us what to expect; the signs and signals that the end is near. He depicts the destruction of Jerusalem as a call to prepare for the end of time. When the end is near, Our Savior says, flee, pray, and beware.


Jesus spoke these words on Tuesday of Holy Week. Matthew tells us that Jesus was walking past the Temple with his disciples and telling them that at the right time, the Temple would be utterly destroyed, to the point that not even one stone will be left standing on another. (Matthew 24:1-2) Curious, the disciples asked when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age? (Matthew 24:3) Jesus warns them that false prophets, wars, famines, persecution, growing wickedness, and the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world will be signs that the end is near. In the verses before us, Jesus tells his disciples how they should react when they see the end approaching.


So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel – let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Earlier we heard Daniel’s prophecy about this abomination that causes desolation. But what is it? An abomination is a ‘detestable thing’ which defiles a holy place and causes it to be abandoned. In spiritual terms, this means the loss of true worship of God. This happened twice in Israel’s history. The first was when the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple, slaughtering pigs in the holy place and turning the temple into a brothel. But the event that better matches Jesus’ description is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army in 70 AD. When the Roman legions, led by General Titus, surrounded Jerusalem, bringing destruction and depravity like that which had never been seen (and never will be seen again). Jerusalem was besieged for 4 years. Titus used starvation as an effective battle tactic. Parents turned into cannibals, eating their own children. The Roman historian Tacitus estimates that half a million Jews died at the hands of the Romans. And when Jerusalem fell, Titus razed it to the ground, leaving not even one stone of the Temple standing. The Temple worship God had instituted for his chosen nation, Israel, was ended forever. (For proof, just see how the Islamic Temple Mount stands on the site of the Temple of God.)


What should the disciples do when they see and hear the approach of the Roman army? Run for their lives! Flee to the mountains. The unbelieving Jews, who imagined that a Messiah would arise who would protect the holy city from any and all Gentile invaders, would foolishly ignore Jesus’ advice. They would foolishly stay to face starvation and death based on a lie. But many Christians followed Jesus’ advice. They fled across the Jordan River to a place in the hills called Pella. There they were safe from harm overlooking the smoking ruins of Jerusalem.


They had to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice, ready to leave everything behind. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Understandably, for pregnant women and nursing mothers escape would be difficult if not impossible. Jesus’ heart breaks for these poor women and children. A horrific detail of history is that Roman soldiers showed no pity on pregnant mothers, chasing them down, assaulting and killing them.


Therefore, before that happened, they were to pray. Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. Why? Snow and ice are not regular occurrences in most of Israel. But winter rains caused rivers to flood and become impassable. On the Sabbath Day the gates of the city were shut and locked and observant Jews were limited to traveling no more than ¾ of a mile – not nearly enough to escape the swords of the Romans. They were to pray, then, that nothing would hinder their flight to safety.


And Jesus closes his guidance to his 1st century disciples with a caution to be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. In trying and troubling times, people – even those who aren’t normally religious – seek out spiritual guidance. (For example, churches were full the Sunday after 9/11.) And, that longing for comfort also makes people especially vulnerable to the deceptions of false prophets. Jesus warns his disciples not to believe these fakes. Even though they may be able to perform great signs and miracles, the disciples were to hold fast to the one, true Christ, who proved himself to be God’s Son and the Savior not only by his great miracles and powerful preaching, not only by fulfilling every last promise of Scripture, but fully and finally by his resurrection from the dead. For the first century disciples, Jesus’ message was clear: the end of Israel, the end of Temple worship, the end of life as you know it is coming. When you see the signs, when the Roman army is approaching, don’t hesitate, flee; pray that nothing, not the season, not the OT Sabbath laws restrict you; and don’t be deceived by the false Christs, they cannot save you. Trust me and my Word and your life will be spared.


But what’s the message for us? What does the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD have to do with Christians in America in 2017? How can we even be sure that Jesus is talking about his Second Coming? Jesus tells us so himself in verse 27: for as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is clearly referring to a future event beyond the destruction of Jerusalem. Something no one on earth will be able to escape – his Second Coming in Judgment. The fact that Jesus’ prediction about Jerusalem came true in 70 AD is proof that he will return again – and, that his return is imminent. The signs are all there: wars and rumors of wars, nation against nation, famines and earthquakes, increasing wickedness and persecution of believers. But what about the abomination that causes desolation?


Listen again to Paul’s description: Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God…The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. Do we see anything today that matches Paul’s description? One who opposes the true God, sets himself up in God’s temple (the church), proclaims himself to be God and is accompanied by counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders? Martin Luther’s confession in the Smalcald Articles of 1537 still stand: This teaching shows forcefully that the pope is the true Endchrist or Antichrist. He has exalted himself above and opposed himself against Christ. For he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power…Even the Turks [Muslims] do not do this. They take bodily tribute and obedience from Christians, but they allow whoever wishes to believe in Christ. The pope, however, bans this faith. He says that to be saved a person must obey him. (SA IV, 10-12) For 500 years the Lutheran Church has identified the Roman Catholic pope as the ‘abomination that causes desolation’ for two reasons. First, he directs sinners to their own works (or the works of saints) for salvation instead of the completed work of Christ. And, secondly, because the pope urges faith in himself, his word, his declarations in place of and instead of the Word of God. While there are certainly other antichrists in this world – those who claim to be Christ or proclaim a false Christ – none is so clearly positioned in God’s church on earth, proclaims himself to be the way to salvation, and displays the work of Satan in counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders. So yes, the abomination that causes desolation is here.


Which means that all the signs are here. The end is near. What should we do? Flee! Run and don’t look back. But to where can we flee? What mountain can shelter us from the wrath God will pour out on this wicked world? Psalm 121 tells us: I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2) The only shelter from the awful tide God’s wrath is the fortress of God’s grace. As more and more people merge onto the wide road that leads to hell; as more and more of our friends and neighbors, more and more of our own families, run away from Christ; as we hear about impending wars and church shootings; as our city and nation grow increasingly wicked and godless – run away and run to God. Take shelter in his Word and Sacraments. Run to Jesus. Hide yourself in his wounds – the nail marks in his hands, the spear hole in his side – because they are the proof that he has satisfied God’s wrath for you, in your place. Find your shelter in God’s mercy – today, see his mercy in warning us that things are going to get very bad before Christ’s return. And know that is a warning of love. When the end is near, flee to Jesus, his Word, his Sacrament, his sacrifice. Only he can shelter you on the great and terrible day of the Lord.


And pray. Pray that nothing would hinder your flight. Today we aren’t hindered by wintry weather or Sabbath laws, so what might hinder our flight to Christ, his blood and righteousness? Unbelieving family members who reject God’s truth to go their own ways pull us away from our Savior. Materialism, immorality, and earthly distractions draw us away from Christ. Pray that nothing; not your job, your children, your hopes and dreams, your wealth and health and logic keep you from running to God and his Word for shelter. Remember your Savior’s loving warning to keep your priorities straight: what good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. (Matthew 6:33) God promises to provide everything else you need for life in this world – even if Jesus doesn’t return for another 2000 years. Flee to Jesus and pray that nothing would hinder your flight.


And, finally, be spiritually discerning. At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect – if that were possible. Before the fall of Jerusalem, many rose up claiming to be the Messiah, who could lead them to victory over their Roman enemies. Perhaps today the danger is not as much people claiming to be Christ but teachers who proclaim a false Christ. Those who proclaim Christ as simply one option among many or merely a good example or a therapist or a wish granting genie or a cuddly teddy bear who isn’t really serious about sin are false prophets. Do not believe [them]. This, Christ’s command, is why we don’t shy away from identifying the pope as the antichrist even though it might be offensive to some. Christ’s command is why we not only proclaim the truth but expose and refute false teaching. They and their lies must be exposed because they are so seductive that even the elect can fall under their spell for a time. Beware of the lies that are out there. The one true Christ is not gay-affirming, does not condone lifestyles that are contrary to his will, does not promise believers health and wealth and happiness, and his objective is not to be your buddy or your life coach. The one true Christ left heaven to come to this earth to spill his blood on a cross to pay for your sins against a holy God. He came to be your Savior. Don’t be deceived. Beware of false teachers and false teachings. How? Compare everything, everything, you read, see, and hear to the written Word of God.


Why? Why the urgency? For as lightning that comes from the east is visible in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. No one knows the day or the hour – and when Jesus arrives it will be too late. The signs are all here. Christ will return and it could be today. Should we be afraid? No! Because Christ has warned us and Christ has prepared us. The end is near: flee to his Word and take shelter in his forgiveness, pray that nothing would hinder you, and beware of false teachings and teachers. And when you see the signs, look forward to your Savior’s second coming – because he is bringing the day of your redemption. Amen.

Romans 4:1-5 - Hold On to Your Lutheran "Loneliness" - October 29, 2017

What does it mean to be Lutheran? Since this is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, you may find yourself in a situation where someone who is aware of the anniversary – perhaps because they saw the Luther documentary on PBS – may turn that question on you: what does it mean to be Lutheran? There are some standard, stereotypical answers to that question. Being Lutheran means that you can’t have Bible class without coffee and snacks and if you’re going to have a meal, it’s going to be a potluck. Or, Lutherans are those folks who only sing a song if it was written by a German, is at least 100 years old, and can be played on an organ. Maybe Lutherans are known as the teaching church. Now those things may be true – but that’s not really what it means to be Lutheran. What does it mean? Well, if you can remember one word, the word engraved on the cornerstone of this building – the word “sola”– you have a pretty good start in explaining what it means to be Lutheran.


“Sola” means alone. To be Lutheran means to be alone – in a sense, lonely. That concept goes all the way back to Martin Luther’s day. In his commentary on Galatians of 1535 Luther wrote: “Victory over sin and death does not come by the works of the Law or by our will; therefore it comes by Jesus Christ alone. Here we are perfectly willing to have ourselves called “solarii” by our opponents, who do not understand anything of Paul’s argument. You who are to be consolers of consciences that are afflicted, should teach this doctrine diligently, study it continually, and defend it vigorously against the abominations of the papists, Jews, Turks, and all the rest.” [1] Luther’s opponents meant it to be derogatory to call him an “aloneist.” Luther wore it as a badge of honor. But that’s not why it’s important – not because Luther said it and stood for it. It’s not important because these principles are 500 years old. But because the doctrines of Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone are the pillars of salvation revealed by God himself. 500 years later we are still holding onto our Lutheran loneliness because those “sola’s” remain the foundation of our salvation.


I.                    Sola Scriptura


We find a summary of these principles in the Word of God before us. What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? What matter? If you page back to Romans 3, you see that Paul has been discussing the matter of justification. I know that’s a big theological word that often makes people’s eyes gloss over but it is the central doctrine of Scripture and the Christian faith. To be justified means to be “declared righteous” or “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. So you can feel free to tune out if you want. This is only important if you think you’re ever going to die and have to stand before a righteous God to be judged either “not guilty” of your sins and invited to make your home in heaven or “guilty” and damned to spend eternity paying for your sins in hell. That’s what justification is all about. Does that matter? Nothing matters more than justification before God.


Here’s how the Apostle Paul explained justification in Romans 3: There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) How do guilty sinners find acquittal in the courtroom of a holy God? Paul uses Abraham as his case study. He almost had to. The Jews of his day tended to point to Abraham as proof that people are justified by works. At first glance, they seem to have a point. We know that God asked Abraham to do many hard things in his life. He commanded him to leave his home for an unknown land, and Abraham got up and went. (Genesis 12) After 25 years in that land – 25 years of no children even though God had promised Abraham a son – God gave him a son named Isaac. (Genesis 21) But then God commanded Abraham to sacrifice that son…and Abraham was ready to do it! (Genesis 22) So the Jews thought and taught that if anyone was ever justified by works, it was Abraham.


So Paul asks what shall we say that Abraham discovered in this matter of justification? Pay close attention to how Paul answers this question: what does the Scripture say? Sola scriptura. Paul doesn’t say “well, this is how I feel about it” or “this is what my rabbi told me.” No, Paul asks what does the Scripture say? And this isn’t an anomaly, either. 60 times in the 16 chapters of Romans Paul goes back to the OT and cites the Scriptures as the basis for his teaching. This was Paul’s default policy. Scripture and Scripture alone formed the foundation of Paul’s life and teaching.


And yet, within 1500 years, this foundation had been swept aside and replaced in the Roman Catholic Church. What did they replace it with? The traditions of the church fathers, the decisions of councils and the decrees of popes. All took precedence over the Word of God. That’s what made Luther so upset. That’s why he posted the 95 theses. And that’s why, when he was commanded to recant, to take back his writings on threat of death Luther said “unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scriptures…I cannot and will not take back anything. Here I stand. God help me.” What does Scripture say is the only question that matters! And yet, once again, we live in a time where people are not ready and willing to ask that question. Instead, many stake their lives and eternities on questions like: “what do I feel?” or “what is popular and politically correct?” or “what can I do to be saved?” And, if people can be led to even consider Scripture, the question is often not “what does the Scripture say?” but “what does Scripture say to you?” As if the Word of God is a piece of clay that we are free to mold however you want; as if the almighty, all-powerful God needs our brilliance to give his Word meaning. And that’s why so many people are leaving the church today. “The church says that Scripture is open to many different interpretations and the most important thing is that you feel good and follow your heart. What do I need the church for? I’m just going to stay home, listen to my heart and follow where it leads.” There is no worse place to go for comfort and certainty. The prophet Jeremiah wrote: the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jeremiah 17:9) Or, others say “Scripture is a good place to start, but it’s not enough.” You need to go to the latest and greatest self-appointed prophet who has had a vision directly from God. Do you know what God’s true prophet, Isaiah, said about those people? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. (Isaiah 8:20) Isaiah and Paul agree: What does the Scripture say?

And this is not just important for me as a pastor or the WELS as a church body – Scripture alone is of vital importance for you in your daily life. Why? Because you know how life goes. Some days you wake up and you feel pretty good about yourself and imagine that God must be impressed with you and that you don’t really need Jesus or his blood and righteousness. What does the Scripture say? There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Don’t you dare stand there with the Pharisee and say God I thank you I am not like other [people] (Luke 18:11) because you are! You are a sinner in God’s sight. And then there are other days on the roller coaster of life when you wake up and can’t even look at yourself in the mirror. When you think “What a worthless creature I am, for the filthy thoughts that have floated through my mind, for the loveless words and actions I have done to the people I should love most. There is no way that God could love me.” Those too are the times when we need to reject our feelings and instead ask what does the Scripture say? And when you do, you find a gracious God who 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)


What does the Scripture say? It’s not, what does the Supreme Court or Hollywood say? What does the latest survey say? What does the WELS or Luther say? The only question that matters is: what does the Scripture say? Sola Scriptura. That’s what it means to be Lutheran.


II.                  Sola Gratia


So, what does the Scripture say? What did Abraham learn about being justified before God? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. We could stop right there, couldn’t we? How was Abraham justified? God simply gave it to him by grace alone. There he was, a decrepit old man with a decrepit old wife who had no reasonable hope of ever having children. But God showed him the stars in the sky and said so shall your offspring be. (Genesis 15:5) And so Abraham did the unreasonable, the illogical thing: he believed God’s promise.


What did Abraham believe? He believed that among that blanket of stars was not only the son God would give Abraham, there was another son, God’s only begotten Son. The one God had promised already to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden who would come and crush the power of Satan and free those who had been held in slavery by the fear of sin and death. Abraham believed. And that faith is always a gift of God’s grace. Oh, there are always people who claim that we are born into this world with free will. That the decision to believe is within our power. It’s not. Why not? What does the Scripture say? The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:7-8) We do not have free will in spiritual matters. We are slaves of sin and Satan. By nature, we are not God’s friends, we are his enemies. The fact that we believe is only and always the result of God’s grace, his undeserved love, as Paul told the Ephesians: 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)  


Again, we could stop there. Being Lutheran means being saved by God’s grace alone. But Paul has more to say about the glory and mystery of God’s grace. To the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Did you hear what kind of God we have? One who justifies, who declares not guilty – not the good, not those who try their best – but the wicked. Now we would say that’s not fair. If that were to happen in a court of law in our country there would be mobs in the streets protesting. But the justification of the wicked is exactly what happens in God’s courtroom. How? How can a just God acquit the guilty? Because Jesus Christ died for the sins of the wicked. Remember Paul’s definition of justification: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) That’s how we, we who were born into this world without true fear of God and true faith in God in our hearts. Who hated God’s law and despised his Gospel as foolishness are justified. It’s by grace. Justification comes from God, not from us. And that doesn’t end – even after we’ve come to faith. Because there is still an unbeliever living inside of us – who hates God and his will. We still sin daily with our hands and lips and hearts. We are still wicked; but God still justifies the wicked. That’s why we always begin with the confession of sins and absolution – so that we can leave here every single Sunday like that tax collector – justified before God. From beginning to end, from first breath to last, justification is only and always by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.


This is important not just because Luther rediscovered it 500 years ago. This is important not just for me as a pastor and the WELS as a church body. This is vitally important for you. Because we are, once again, living in a time that despises God’s grace. People are still determined to please God by their own works like that Pharisee in the temple. Doubt that? Open up the obituary section in the newspaper. Listen to a funeral eulogy or sermon. “Oh, this was the greatest guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He worked hard and loved his family. And now he’s in heaven because that’s what good guys like him deserve.” But what does the Scripture say? 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.” (Galatians 3:10-11) Only by the grace of God, only by throwing ourselves down before God’s throne and begging for his mercy – mercy he has gladly shown by sending Jesus to suffer our punishment and purchase our freedom is anyone saved. Saved by grace alone – that’s what it means to be Lutheran.




III.               Sola Fide


Feeling lonely yet? We’ve come to the third of our solas, Sola Fide. Faith alone. We’ve already covered the fact that faith is always and only a gift of God and not the product of our own will or decision. But Paul has more to say about how salvation comes through faith alone. Abraham believed God, and it was credited it him as righteousness. Remember what Abraham believed. Not only did he believe that God would give him a son, not only did he believe that God would give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, but he also believed that one of those descendants would be the promised Savior who would do what Abraham couldn’t do, what no one could do – live a perfectly obedient, righteous life. Abraham knew that he couldn’t do that because he hadn’t done that.


We typically think of Abraham as a great hero of faith – and he was, but he was not a hero of obedience. Joshua tells us that before God called Abraham, he worshiped idols. (Joshua 24:2) On two separate occasions, Abraham lied about his wife’s identity – calling her his sister. (Genesis 12:10-20; 20) And in Genesis 16, Abraham colluded with Sarah to speed up God’s timeline by sleeping with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. (Genesis 16) The record of Scripture proves that Abraham was not righteous by his works.


But what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That word, credited, comes from the accounting world. Paul is giving us a glimpse into heaven’s accounting department – God’s record books. The name of every person ever born is there. And there’s a column that reads DEBTS. We owe God perfect obedience, a life completely free from sin. And no one has paid in full listed by their name in that category. Not that people haven’t tried. The Pharisee certainly did. But he didn’t succeed. Jesus says he went home from church just as sinful as he came. Scripture makes it undeniably clear that we cannot achieve the righteousness God demands on our own.


Paul uses an everyday picture to illustrate how faith works: Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. Abraham looked ahead and trusted that the Savior God promised to send would do what he could not – pay for his sins and live a perfectly obedient life. And God credited Jesus’ perfect righteousness to Abraham’s account – so that next to his name it read paid in full. And that’s how it still works today. When the Holy Spirit leads us to take hold of the message that Jesus died for the sins of the world – and that I’m part of that world; when we can say with Martin Luther “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not” [2] - by that faith, by claiming Jesus’ righteousness as your own, God writes next to your name too: paid in full. That’s why faith alone saves us. Not because it’s a good work. Not because it’s the one thing we have to do to be saved. But because it clings to Christ and claims his righteousness as our own.


That’s why the doctrine of faith alone is so important. That’s why we demand pure doctrine in our churches and why we emphasize teaching and preaching over socializing and community service; it’s not doctrine for doctrine’s sake, it’s doctrine for salvation’s sake – for the sake of lost, despairing sinners. Faith drives us outside of ourselves and our own feelings: “am I good enough?”, “do I feel like heaven is mine?”, “do I believe strongly enough?” Sola fide says: “It’s not about you. It’s about what Christ has done for you on the cross!” What you feel in your heart will change every day. But what Jesus accomplished on that cross 2000 years ago will never change. It’s claiming Christ’s righteousness as your own through faith – that’s the only way you can be certain that you stand justified, acquitted in God’s courtroom.


So what does it mean to be Lutheran? It’s not about old German hymns or the jello at potlucks. Being Lutheran means being certain that we stand before God justified, not guilty, holy, and righteous just as he demands. How? By being lonely. Sola scriptura. Sola gratia. Sola fide. Hold onto your Lutheran “loneliness”. Here Paul stood. Here Luther stood. Here we stand. God help us. Amen.




[1] LW 26:138


Hebrews 11:1-3, 13-16 - Faith Alone - October 22, 2017

A sermon about faith may, at first, seem out of place in 2017. We are living in the least religious era in American history, where people, especially young people, are leaving churches in droves. How can we discuss faith when more people than ever are convinced that faith is an unnecessary relic of the past? Well, those who argue that faith is unnecessary in this day and age don’t really know what they’re talking about. When you set your alarm clock last night, you had faith that it would go off in the morning. When you turned the key in the ignition this morning, you had faith that the engine would start. I just read this morning that even as young people are leaving churches, interest in the occult and astrology (horoscopes etc.) is growing. That takes faith. Even atheists, even though they would never admit it, have faith – they believe, without a shred of evidence, that there is no God. Everyone believes something. So the question is not really whether faith is relevant in 2017 – it is as much as ever. The question is what distinguishes genuine, Christian faith – the only faith that can save – from the rest. Hebrews 11 answers the big questions about genuine, saving faith: what is faith? Faith in what? Faith for what?


The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to abandon their Christian faith and return to the Judaism of their forefathers because of persecution. These believers were living in a world where Judaism was legalized and tolerated but Christianity, the new kid on the “religious” block, was viewed with suspicion and, under Emperor Nero, was widely persecuted. The temptation, then, was to abandon faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in favor of the old, “safe” ways of Judaism – circumcision, the sacrifices, the Sabbaths and festivals, kosher diet, etc. They were tempted to abandon their faith in a Savior they couldn’t see for traditions and ceremonies they could. The author’s goal in chapter 11, then, is to show these wavering believers that leaving the Christian faith was not a return to the religion of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – but a desertion of them. This chapter emphasizes that the way of salvation has only ever been through faith in God’s promises.


So what is faith? H. L. Mencken, a 20th century American journalist wrote that “faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.” [1] Faith has been mocked as a blind leap in the dark, a rejection of scientific fact, or a fuzzy feeling that you get in your stomach. Even Christians can have a false understanding of faith. Some do it by equating faith to behavior. If you do good things – live a clean life, work hard, obey the Golden Rule, attend church, donate your time and money – many equate that to having faith. Others have faith in faith, thinking “it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you really believe it.” And still others see faith as a way to bribe God for his blessings. They have fallen for the televangelist heresy that “if you truly believe, you will be able to name and claim great worldly riches and success for yourself.” There are many false definitions of faith – but only one that comes from the Holy Spirit himself: now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. What is faith? Faith is the conviction that things we cannot see or prove are true and reliable. But doesn’t that just prove that faith is a blind leap into the unknown? Not at all! Faith is not a blind hope or empty feeling. Faith sees God’s promises – printed in black and white in his Word – and holds onto them in spite of any external, visible circumstances.


The author gives an example two verses later: by faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. No one was there to see what happened in the very beginning, when everything that we see around us was made from nothing. (see Job 38:4) There is no YouTube video that can show us what happened on the first six days of this universe – but because the only one who was there – God himself – tells us that he created everything in six normal days with nothing but his Word, we believe it. That’s faith. It’s not blind. Not a denial of the facts. It’s certainty regarding things we cannot see or prove – like creation – simply because God says so.


In the verses we skipped, the author lists some of the heroes of Genesis which prove that saving faith is nothing other than taking God at his Word. There’s Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted by God because he combined it with faith in the promised Savior. Enoch, one of only two humans who didn’t experience death, was commended as one who pleased God because he trusted God’s promises. Noah, who built a ship on dry ground, in spite of the ridicule and criticism of his neighbors, because he believed that God would make good on his threat to send a flood. Abraham, who followed God’s command to leave his home for an unknown destination and believed that his wife, Sarah, would give birth even though she was old and infertile. In each case, these people are immortalized in Scripture – and in that way, commended by God – simply because they took God at his Word in spite of uncertain or dangerous circumstances.


He then summarizes what we can learn from these people: all these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance. What did these people die without receiving? The Savior. And yet, they believed God’s promise anyway. Abel knew that his sacrifice could not pay for any of his sins, but he trusted that the sacrifice God had promised would pay for all of them. (Hebrews 10:10) Noah, whom God saved by the water of the flood, was never baptized in Jesus’ name – but through faith in the coming Savior his sins were washed away nonetheless. And Abraham – who we will hear more about next week – trusted that God would keep his promise to preserve the line of the Savior through him even though, in terms of fertility, he was as good as dead. (Hebrews 11:12) None of them knew the specific details of how God would keep his promise – how Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. None of them could have made the full, detailed confession of faith that we can, but they trusted that if God promised to send a Savior, he would. And this was what they clung to in spite of dangerous, uncertain, and frightening circumstances.



And, even though we are separated from those believers by thousands of years, saving faith today is no different: it’s still conviction in God’s Word regarding things we haven’t seen. We haven’t seen the paternity test that proves that Jesus was not conceived by a human father, but we trust the explanation the angel Gabriel gave to Mary: the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…for nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:35, 37) We haven’t seen the video footage that confirmed the sinlessness of Jesus’ life, but our faith is grounded on the testimony of Scripture – like that found in Hebrews 4: we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) No science experiment can measure the cleansing power of Baptism, but when Jesus – who had just risen from the dead – says whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16) we take him at his Word. Our hearts and hands and memories are still scarred with sins of the past, but when God says that as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12) – we don’t argue, we believe. And, even though it’s been 2000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven, we look – with eyes of faith – for this same Jesus…to come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11) Faith is what? Conviction, certainty. In what? God’s unbreakable, unshakeable Word.


Faith for what? Many Christians don’t believe big enough. They are merely looking for worldly peace and prosperity or temporary happiness or the answer to a specific prayer. The problem is that you can search the Scriptures and you won’t find any promises about those things. So what has God promised? What are we hoping for? They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Abraham’s admission that he was an alien and stranger came as he was looking to purchase a grave for his wife, Sarah, who had passed away. (Genesis 23:4) Isn’t that what faith is all about? Being able to look death and judgment in the eye with confidence and even joy? There’s certainly no lack of things that try to rattle or divert our faith in God’s promise of eternal life. The world mocks our faith in eternal life as a philosophical narcotic that makes life bearable. Our rational flesh tempts us to chase after the security this world offers – an exercise routine, a diet, an insurance plan or wealth to try to keep death away. And Satan, the accuser, is ever-present, to dredge up the past, to haunt us with guilt and shame, to remind us that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath for our sins. And the temptation is so strong in those moments to give in, to give up, to despair and allow the ugly realities we can see with these eyes to overcome the realities God has promised.


But just as faith pierces through the veil of sin to see the cross of Christ where all sin – every last one of them – was paid for; just as faith pierces through the darkness of the future, clinging to God’s promise never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5); just as faith sees how frail and fickle this world and everything in it is, so that instead of storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, we store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20); so faith’s vision can even see through the black hole of death. Faith looks beyond the borders of this world to a better country – a heavenly one. Faith doesn’t look to preserve and extend this life at all costs, it longs for eternal citizenship in the city God has prepared. How? How can we be sure of something that is hidden in the future, how can we be certain of something we, do not see? Faith alone, given by grace alone, grounded in Scripture alone. Faith doesn’t care if this world mocks and ridicules us. It responds with Paul: let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:4) Faith clings to Christ’s cross – where he paid our admission price into heaven; and his empty tomb – which is a living testimony to his promise: because I live, you also will live. (John 14:19) Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see – focused on Christ alone, grounded in Scripture alone, given by grace alone – that’s saving faith. Faith is not a feeling, it’s a conviction; it’s not based on what I see or feel, but in what God has promised in his Word; it’s not a hope for a better, longer or happier life in this world, it’s the assurance that we will live forever in a much better place – the city of our God.


Our Reformation heritage – the one we have freely received, the one we will freely pass on – is that we are justified, saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, found in Scripture alone. What is saving faith? Martin Luther wrote: when faith performs its proper office, it looks to absolutely nothing except Jesus Christ, the Son of God, given for the sins of the whole world. It does not look at love, does not say: What have I done? Which sins have I committed? What have I merited? It rather says: What has Christ done? What has He merited? [2] What is faith? Faith in what? Faith for what? Faith is certainty in God’s promise of eternal life for Christ’s sake. May God grant us such as faith as this. Amen.  



[2] Plass, What Luther Says, 1482

Ephesians 2:1-10 - How Grace Works - October 15, 2017

Grace, alongside the other two solas of the Reformation, Scripture and faith, is one of the fundamental, foundational concepts in Christian vocabulary and life. If asked what grace is, I’m confident all of us could answer without hesitation: “grace is God’s undeserved love.” We love to hear about grace, to talk about grace, to sing about grace. But grace might be one of those things that is almost too familiar to us. We may take it for granted. We may be able to define it, but can we explain it? Could we explain what it means to be saved by grace alone? Could we explain how grace works? The sad truth is that many Christians do not really understand grace. Many believe that when it comes to salvation – we must play an active role in achieving it. In Luther’s day, it consisted of performing acts of penance or buying indulgences; today, it’s making a decision for Christ or feeling God in your heart. In many places, grace has taken a backseat to your own feelings, your own determination, your own decision, your own good works. Restoring the proper, Biblical understanding of grace was one of the main reasons Luther nailed 95 theses to the Castle Church door 500 years ago. As part of the heritage we have received, then, we should know how grace works. And there is no better place to go for an explanation of grace than Ephesians chapter 2, where Paul explains grace with this outline: we were…but God…you have been…and now you are.


One reason many Christians may begin to take God’s grace for granted is that it’s so easy to forget what we were apart from it. That forgetfulness apparently applied to the Christians living in Ephesus. So Paul reminded them – and, he reminds us of the unpleasant truth: you were dead. What we were apart from God’s grace is not a pretty picture. These days we keep death at a distance; death lives in sterile hospitals and nursing homes and funeral homes. We try to pretend like death doesn’t really exist. But what Paul is picturing here is a stinking, rotting corpse. Powerless. Lifeless. Worthless. Dead. That’s how we were born – how all humanity has entered this world since the Fall into sin. Oh, sure, we were talking and walking; eating and drinking; working and sleeping. But through it all we were spiritual zombies, powerless to do anything good, helpless to save ourselves, dead to God.  


Paul goes on to describe how this spiritual deadness manifested itself in our lives: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked when you followed the ways of this present world. This present world is society as it is aligned against God. There are four currents or philosophies in society that are distinctly ungodly and anti-Christian. The first is secularism – the delusion that anything in life can be separated from God and his will; second is amoralism – the indifference to or denial of the existence of moral absolutes; third is materialism – a strong focus on the things of this world, to the exclusion of spiritual, heavenly things; and the fourth is an ahistorical approach to life – a lack of interest or even downright hostility toward history and tradition. These ungodly influences pervade every aspect of the unbelieving world. If you need proof just turn on the television or jump onto social media and see what comes out. When you do, remember that that’s what you were: dead like this world; dead to God.


It gets worse: you were following the ruler of the domain of the air, the spirit now at work in the people who disobey. Who sets the agenda for the unbelieving world? The prince of darkness himself, Satan. Twice during his ministry Jesus identified the devil as the prince of this world. (John 12:31; 14:30) The devil, whose sole objective is to ensure that as many souls as possible spend eternity with him in hell will stop at nothing to distort God’s Word, obstruct God’s will and deceive God’s people – is pulling the strings on this unbelieving world. And we were under his authority and influence. Slaves of Satan, we were dead to God.


And those external influences found an ally right in our own hearts. Formerly, we all lived among them in the passions of our sinful flesh, as we carried out the desires of the sinful flesh and its thoughts. As if our situation wasn’t bad enough, Paul reminds us that we were utterly depraved. We were not only slaves of Satan, we were slaves to our own godless passions and desires. Instead of living for God and loving our neighbor we lived for and loved only ourselves. Even the good desires God gave us became twisted and perverted. Hunger became gluttony. The desire for rest became laziness. Sexual desires twisted into lust. The desire for social connections turned us into self-important, self-seeking narcissists. Martin Luther described the dual nature of the total depravity we were born into: it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a total lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is a propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness. [1] The result of this – of following the ways of this world, of serving Satan as lord, of hating good and loving evil is that like all the others, we were by nature objects of God’s wrath. The world likes to believe that newborn babies are good and pure and innocent – and that it’s only society that makes people evil. Paul sets the record straight. We were not good. Not innocent. Not even neutral. Wicked, enslaved, dead, objects of wrath – that’s what we were. And left to ourselves we had nothing to look forward to but a miserable life on earth and an eternity of punishment in hell.


Thank God for verse 4. Thank God for one of the shortest yet most important words in the whole Bible. The word “but.” But God, because he is rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in trespasses. The one thing – the only thing – that changed our status before God is God; his grace; his undeserved love. God saw how hopeless we were, he had pity on us in our lost condition, and he resolved to do something about it. God decided to give salvation away to a world of sinners for free, but that decision came at the cost of his most precious possession. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God loved. God gave. God saved. That’s grace. Grace dripped from everything Jesus said and did during his lifetime. He didn’t seek out the proud and powerful, he went to the lost and sick and suffering. He didn’t tell stories about sinners who did their best and tried their hardest to win God’s love. He told stories like the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) which demonstrates that citizenship in God’s kingdom is not a matter of working or earning, but a matter of God’s grace, freely given. It was grace and grace alone that led Jesus to stretch out his hands on a cruel cross, forgive those who put him there, spill his blood and become the sole object, the sole target of God’s wrath in the place of wretched, depraved, spiritually useless sinners like us. We were dead. But God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead. That’s how grace works.


“I get that” many people say, “and I – unlike so many people – believe it. Don’t I get some credit for that?” Let’s test that against Scripture: Indeed, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. According to Paul, who gets the credit for the faith in your heart? That’s right, God. The Biblical practice of infant baptism is a visible demonstration of this invisible truth. No infant begs his parents to be baptized. No infant strolls up here and commits himself or herself to Christ. Infants are totally, utterly passive recipients of God’s life-giving grace. What if you weren’t baptized as an infant? What if you were old enough to decide to be born again or can still remember when you made the decision to commit your life to God? It doesn’t matter. Dead, depraved sinners cannot create faith. Paul told the Corinthians: no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3) Expecting depraved, dead sinners to make a decision for Christ is about as foolish as walking down the street to the cemetery to find help for your yardwork. It’s impossible. It’s only yours by God’s grace. Because you were dead…but God made you alive…and even the faith that pulses in your heart is a gift of God’s grace.


But making us alive and creating faith in our hearts were not the end in themselves, they are the means through which God accomplishes something far greater: He also raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. He did this so that, in the coming ages, he might demonstrate the surpassing riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Do you ever struggle with the concept that you have been saved? Doesn’t it seem better to say that we will be saved? How can Paul say that we are already saved, already residents of heaven, already seated with Christ? It certainly doesn’t feel that way, does it? This evil world, our own words and actions, the certainty of death – those are clear and present realities. But being raised with Christ and seated with him in heaven? Those feel like something distant, something that we may get some day when we die. How can Paul say that we are already seated with Christ? Here our reason must keep silent and faith must take over. God is timeless, and sometimes he speaks of things which will happen as if they had already happened. In God’s eyes, you are alive – forever. In God’s eyes, Christ’s sacrifice washed away every sin you have ever committed and every sin you ever will commit. In God’s eyes, you are already seated with Christ in heaven’s glory. How can Paul be so sure? Grace alone! Just as Christ’s work and your conversion were only the result of God’s grace, so your salvation is only the product of God’s grace. That makes it sure and certain. That means that nothing, nothing in this world, no power of hell, not even your own sin can stop God from carrying out what he resolved to do: save your soul! That’s grace. You were dead…but God made you alive…you have been saved!


But what about now? Grace alone may explain my past and my future. But what about my present. Can’t we take a little credit for the good things we do now? I mean, God didn’t wake up, get the kids ready, and drive to church this morning. God didn’t write the check and lick the envelope and put it in the offering plate. I did that, right? Paul concludes: For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Many Christians – and I would argue, many Lutherans cling to a mistaken idea that they deserve some credit for the good things they do here and now. What’s wrong with that? Why can’t we boast about the good things we do here and now? Because we are God’s workmanship. We are God’s creation, his masterpiece. His grace not only made us, it flows through us. Just like a work of art brings credit to the artist and a highway bridge gives glory to its designing engineer, so our good works bring glory to the God who made us. We are nothing more and nothing less than demonstrations of God’s skill, trophies of his grace. And should we have any doubt, Paul says that God prepared these good works in advance so that we would walk in them. I think of you mothers – God put you in that place and blessed you with that child just so you could give him glory by changing diaper after diaper. Or you employees – God planned and prepared that job for you and gave you the education and talents and abilities necessary so that tomorrow you could give him glory by doing whatever it is you do. All of you who contributed and will contribute to Building Our Great Heritage – all of it, your income, your saving, your desire, your generosity, this opportunity – they’re all the result of God creating you, saving you, and equipping you to be and do what he created you to do. So if we’re going to say anything about our good works, what should we say? I was dead…but God made me alive…so that I could and would do the good works he prepared in advance for me to do!


Grace. We know that word. We sing that word. We love that word. But do we know how grace really works? Now we do. You were dead…but God made you alive with Christ…you have been saved…which means you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ to do good works. How does grace work? Martin Luther put it best: Grace works alone! Grace works in spite of us, to remake us, to save us, to make us into God’s masterpieces, designed and equipped to do the good works he has prepared for us to do. We are saved by grace alone! And that means that our salvation is certain. To God alone be the glory! Amen.



[1] LW 25:299

1 Peter 1:23-25 - Our Great Heritage: Scripture Alone - October 8, 2017

Ever since Adam and Eve stood over the grave of their son Abel – who had been ruthlessly murdered by Cain, his own brother – I imagine that parents and grandparents of every generation have asked the timeless question: “what is this world coming to?” Maybe it’s because I am now a parent myself, but doesn’t it seem like now is a pretty fitting time to ask that question? Consider some of the more recent events in our nation. It seems like a distant memory already, but it was only in July that Burlington, WI suffered some of the worst flooding in its history – destroying countless homes and forever changing people’s lives. Then came the hurricanes, one after another after another. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and now, Nate. On Sunday, September 24th, a gunman charged into a Christian church near Nashville, Tennessee, killing one worshiper and wounding seven others – a story you may not have heard about because it did not receive much media coverage. And last Sunday evening a gunman opened fire on a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, killing 58 and injuring over 500 – the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. “What is this world coming to?” – inspires a variety of practical questions: How do we deal with terribly tragic events in our world and lives? How do we explain them to our children? How do we cope with the fact that death stands outside our front door? What can we hold onto in a world where it seems you can’t really trust anyone or anything? Peter has answers for us this morning. He reminds us that in a dying world we have the dependable Word.


Maybe the first question is: how can we presume to have answers to these questions while the best and brightest minds in our nation seem so clueless and powerless? Whenever a tragedy happens, the discussions and potential solutions always seem to be the same: more gun laws or fewer gun laws, more mental health screening and more background checks, better warning systems or cutting our carbon footprint – and then there’s the endless, pointless debate over why people do evil things. There’s no shortage of discussion regarding the problems the world faces, but there is a definite shortage of answers. And, for the unbelieving world, that’s all you can expect. Paul told the Romans why we cannot and should not expect the unbelieving world to ever solve the problems caused by sin: although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools. (Romans 1:21-22) The unbelieving world can neither understand nor solve the problem of evil in the world because it neither knows the one, true God nor believes his Word. What makes us any different? What makes us any more qualified to discuss evil in our world? The difference is not that we are more intelligent or better informed than our unbelieving neighbors.


The difference, Peter says, is that we were born again. We were given new life and a living faith, our eyes were opened, not by returning to the womb but, through the living and enduring word of God. How can we say with certainty that the source of evil is not a gun or a carbon footprint or a mental disorder? How can we say with certainty that the world is not getting better but much, much worse? How can we claim to have answers when the rest of the world only has questions? Because God has revealed the truth to us in his Word. And, unlike the seed of sin that we pass down to our children, the seed of God’s Word is imperishable – it doesn’t die. It keeps working day after day, century after century, inviting, forgiving, sanctifying, disciplining, justifying, informing and guiding us through a sin-sick world on the narrow path to heaven. It tells us where evil comes from: out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. (Matthew 15:19) It tells us why creation rises up against mankind in hurricanes and storms: because those who live in it are wicked. (Jeremiah 12:4) The Word of God convicts all of us as sinners worthy only of God’s wrath: there is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10); but promises salvation for all through the blood of Christ: he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2) The living and enduring Word of God not only guides us through this life, it removes our fear of death: because although the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23) We can state those things with certainty because they are God’s own unbreakable, unshakeable truth. That is the heritage we have received. By God’s grace we have come to believe and trust that God’s Word is the only dependable thing in this dying world.


But it’s so easy to lose our focus and trust in that simple, yet powerful and effective and eternal Word, isn’t it? Our world is one big sin city, filled with flashing lights and people to see, places to visit, and things to do. Perhaps Las Vegas is the perfect example of how Satan wants us to see life. The Eiffel Tower and Midtown Manhattan and an Egyptian pyramid rise out of nowhere. Fantastic fountains and brilliant attractions light up the desert floor. Towering hotels, monuments to mankind’s strength and ingenuity, reach up to heaven. Almost anything your heart desires lays at your fingertips. And, best of all, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! All of it is a shrine which leads mankind to worship its favorite idol: itself. All of it tempts us to say: “wow, it’s amazing what man can do!”


Until it’s not amazing anymore. Until the prophetic words of Isaiah are once again proven to be true of everything mankind is and does: all men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of field; the grass withers and the flowers fall. Peter reminds us of the reality that beneath all the glitz and glamour, beneath the fantasy and splendor lies sin and death. The hotels that tower over the strip are only façades that will eventually crumble and fall. Underneath the light shows and fountains prostitutes and drug dealers carry out their ugly business; the performers and entertainers – rich and famous one second, are used up and thrown away the next. Unfortunately, it often takes a tragic event like the one that happened last Sunday to shock people back to the reality: it’s not amazing what people can do…more often than not it’s horrible and wicked and evil. Which serves to prove Peter’s point: this world is dying.


And it’s not just happening in faraway places like Las Vegas and Puerto Rico. It’s happening right here. I’m dying. You’re dying. Every new gray hair – or every hair lost; every new wrinkle and every new ache; every trip to the doctor’s office and the pharmacy; every bruise and sprain that takes longer to heal than the last one – all are a reminder of who we really are. I may fool myself into thinking that I’m strong and tough like the grass in the field; I may believe that I’m a glorious, beautiful flower – but the reality is that from the moment of my birth, I’ve been dying. And so are you. And we’re all dying for the same reason. What we see in the mirror and hear from the doctor are only symptoms. For the true diagnosis we must look deeply into the mirror of God’s holy law. There we see that God doesn’t expect us to compare ourselves to the terrorists and mass murderers of the world – he demands that we compare ourselves to him. Be holy. (set apart) (1 Peter 1:16) I’m not holy. Be perfect. (spotless) (Matthew 5:48) I’m not perfect. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matthew 22:37) But my loyalty is torn in a million different directions.  Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:38) But I have spent all my love on myself. And so, just like every generation that has gone before us, we will die. For dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19)


And the same is true of almost everything that we work so hard to pass on to our children. The best habits and behaviors that we can instill in them are often forgotten the moment they move out of the house. Inheritances and estates are poorly managed, stolen and lost. Even the best education cannot guarantee a secure future. We can try to provide the best life possible for our children, but the fact remains that they too face a future that ends in a cold, dark grave. So what can we pass on, what can we pray for, what can we work for that will make a difference, that will not rot and decay and end in death and destruction?


The word of the Lord stands forever. There is a heritage we can pass on that will not die, will not perish, will not end in death and destruction. The Word of the Lord stands firm – just as it has since the very beginning – from generation to generation. Scripture has served as our dependable guide through this dark world – and Scripture alone will guide our children long after we are gone. (Psalm 119:105) Scripture alone will teach our children that life’s biggest problem is not out there – it’s not the guns or hurricanes or political polarization; it’s in here – it’s the sin-sick heart beating in all of our chests. The next generation will learn from the created world that there is a God and that he is obviously much bigger, wiser, and more powerful than they are – and their consciences will tell them that they are accountable to him. But Scripture alone can tell them that God is a compassionate Father who loved them so much that he sent his Son to die for them. The bathroom mirror will sooner or later tell them that they are dying too. But Scripture alone reveals both the source and solution to death: the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:56-57) Social media will inform our children of tragic stories and evil individuals. But Scripture alone will tell them that their most important battle is not against climate change or heavenly armed gunmen but against sin and the Satanic forces of hell. (Ephesians 6:12) These truths: the truths of sin and grace, of good and evil, of heaven and hell, of salvation in Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed in Scripture alone – these are eternal, these will never pass away. These truths have guarded and guided and sustained generations of believers before us and they will continue to guide each generation safely through this dying world to the safety of heaven.


Allow us to demonstrate how this works. In Matthew 24, Jesus himself answers the question: “what is this world coming to?” Many will come in my name, claiming, “I am the Christ,” and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other…because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold. (Matthew 24:4-14) What do you tell your children? Jesus told us that this would happen, and he said see to it that you are not alarmed. (Matthew 24:6) What do these things mean? Even so, when you see all these things, you know that [the Son of Man] is near, right at the door. (Matthew 24:33) What do we cling to? Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Matthew 24:35) How do we cope with the grim reality that we and this world are dying? Scripture alone assures us that although this world is coming to an end, neither death nor life…neither the present nor the future…nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39)


Scripture alone tells us who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Scripture alone can make sense of this senseless, violent, evil world. Scripture alone tells us that the God who is our Judge is also our Savior. Scripture alone tells us that God sent his Son to suffer and die for a world of sinners. Scripture alone will endure long after you and I and whatever we plan or build withers and blows away like the grass of the field. Scripture alone is our dependable guide through this dying world to eternal life with God in heaven. And this is the word that was preached to you - this is the heritage we have received and will pass on to the next generation. Because no matter what happens in this dying world, the word of the Lord stands forever. Amen.

Matthew 18:21-35 - The Framework of Forgiveness - October 1, 2017

What would you say is THE defining characteristic of a Christian? Most of the world’s false religions have a certain ritual, a certain wardrobe, or at the very least, a certain behavior that distinguishes them. Buddhist monks wear dull orange robes; orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes and black suits and don’t trim their sideburns or ever order a side of bacon; Muslim men bow toward Mecca five times a day and insist that women wear hijabs – or suicide vests, depending on the occasion; Mormons have their special underwear, called the temple garment, which sets them apart. But what do we have? Besides a guy wearing a funny black robe, we don’t seem to have much that sets us apart from the rest of the world. But appearances can be deceiving. The human eye cannot see what sets Christians apart from the rest of the world. Instead, as Jesus explains in the parable before us, being Christian isn’t primarily defined by what you wear or what you do or what you eat, Christians are defined by what they have received. Today, Jesus kicks open the door of heaven for us by establishing the framework of forgiveness – teaching us that before God Christians are first forgiven, then forgiving.


Matthew 18 contains one of our Savior’s fullest and most memorable sermons about God’s grace and his earnest desire to seek and to save the lost. Having been personally chosen, called and forgiven by the Savior himself, Peter was certainly familiar with forgiveness, but he could not rid his mind of the thought that forgiveness – in some respect – is earned or deserved, and therefore must have limits and may be forfeited and lost. Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? To be fair, Peter thought he was being generous. The Rabbis – the teachers and preachers – of his time taught that a person could be forgiven at most, three times. After that, they were out of luck. Jesus was not like the rabbis of the time. I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or, according to another reading of the Greek, seventy times seven: 490 times). Either way, Jesus’ point is that forgiveness is not a numbers game – it’s the limitless gift of a gracious God.


To illustrate, Jesus told a very pointed parable about a king, his kingdom, and his servants. I won’t retell the story, but a few themes deserve emphasis. First, just as that servant didn’t live in an isolated bubble, free to do whatever he pleased, we are not truly independent. We are servants in God’s kingdom, accountable to him for all we do and think and say. And, just like that king, God is free to call us in to settle our accounts with him at any time. This isn’t a reference to Judgment Day. This is any day we hear or feel the weight of our sin and guilt; this happens every time we come here and are invited to confess before God and one another, every time a parent asks their child “what did you do?”, whenever God allows tragedy or turmoil or trouble to come into our lives – times which force us to reflect on our lives, our hearts, our eternities. Our forefathers had a phrase for this very important aspect of the framework of forgiveness. They said that our entire existence is coram Deo, a Latin phrase meaning, before, or in the presence of God. The first thing that sets Christianity apart from the world’s false religions is that it isn’t primarily lived for the world to see and praise (or ridicule), it’s lived before God, under his all-seeing eyes, before his judgment seat.


Secondly, this parable shows us how we stack up when God audits our lives according to his law. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. In 1st century Jerusalem, a denarius was the pay for a day’s work. A talent was roughly 6000 denarii. The average worker would have to work 60,000,000 days to pay off a debt of 10,000 talents. This is not your home mortgage; this is the national debt. This was an unpayable obligation.


Who could possibly run up that level of debt? As subjects accountable to God we fall under the rule of his law. He expects us to be perfect, holy, according to his standards – nothing more and nothing less. Goodness, kindness, patience, mercy, generosity – those are not good works that go over and above our duty to God; they are the fundamental rules for life in God’s kingdom. And, James explains God’s grading scale: whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10) Our debt of sin before God is unpayable – not only because it is an amount beyond comprehension, but because nothing we can do, not even the best thing, can wipe away even one sin. Oh, we may try, like that servant, to negotiate with God. Be patient with me…and I will pay back everything. No. He couldn’t and wouldn’t. “God, I’ll try harder tomorrow.” “God, I’ll get my act together when I’m married, when the kids are grown, when I’m retired…tomorrow, next week, next year...” “God, just be patient, and I will pay back good for all the bad I’ve done.” “God, just wait till Sunday, I’ll go to your house, I’ll give my offering – I’ll make everything right.” Bargaining doesn’t work. All the work, all the money in the world, all the good works and all the promises we may make cannot pay off even a single cent of the debt we owe God. And those that die with a debt to God will pay for it forever in the debtor’s prison of hell.


That’s what we deserve from God. But what do we get? The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. I hope you never get tired of hearing this good news. When it comes to your debt of sin, God doesn’t want your promises, he doesn’t want your commitment, he doesn’t want your best effort and intentions. God is not interested in negotiating. The Christian life is not a debt repayment plan full of new obligations. Because what God wants to give us is the one thing we would never expect and never think to ask for – he wants to forgive us, to pay our debt for us. God wanted to do that for you so badly that he didn’t even wait for you to ask for it. Long before you and I were born God came and spoke through the prophet Isaiah: 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) While our hands and hearts and lips were still taking out loans on God’s patience, still busy piling up a debt of sin that we could never repay – that’s when God had compassion and sent his Son to pay the debt we had earned. Paul writes while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) That’s when Jesus determined to climb Mt. Calvary carrying not just our debt, but the debt of all the sinners in the world. And, that’s when, to remove all doubt, he shouted with his dying breath it is finished (John 19:30) – to declare that humanity’s debt to God has been paid in full – once and for all.


That is THE defining characteristic of the Christian. We stand before God not clothed in holy underwear or our personal sacrifices or most sincere commitments – we stand before him as confessed and convicted debtors…who have had forgiveness and salvation handed to us. More than we ever hoped, more than we would have ever dared to ask for, God has taken away our sin and credited us with Christ’s sinless, debtless life. Yes, we are debtors before God, there is no denying that. But what sets Christians apart is that we are forgiven debtors. That is the invisible, timeless seal of faith that links us with Abraham and David and Jeremiah and Peter and James and John and Paul. That is the single characteristic that unites us as people of all different ages and backgrounds and economic levels. In a nation that has been divided again this past week, this time on the basis of whether you stand, sit, kneel, or lock arms during a football game, the framework of God’s forgiveness levels the playing field. Before him we are all kneeling. Before him we are all beggars. As Paul told the Romans: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24) Before God the only thing we can possibly do is beg for mercy. (It’s no coincidence that the phrase Lord, have mercy, is the most repeated line in the liturgy) But, in Christ, we are forgiven beggars.


Forgiven. That’s the defining characteristic of the Christian. But it doesn’t end there. Forgiven Christians are forgiving Christians. You heard what the unmerciful, wicked servant did with his master’s pity – he went out and found a fellow servant who owed him what amounted to pocket change, grabbed him up, choked him out, and had him thrown into prison. This forgiven servant forfeited his master’s forgiveness. And if we ever imagine that we can expect to receive God’s forgiveness while at the same time holding onto a grudge against a fellow believer, Jesus states categorically that unforgiving sinners are unforgiven sinners: in anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from the heart. There’s only one place for unforgiving people – and it’s not heaven.


The inevitable and absolutely necessary product of being forgiven is the willingness to forgive others. Easier said than done, right? As we hold the keys of Christ’s kingdom in our hands, we might believe that using the binding key – the law – to show a fellow brother or sister their sin is the more difficult key to use. That is, until someone hurts us…deeply, painfully, repeatedly. Then we are tempted to stand with Peter and believe that forgiveness needs to have some limits; that repeated sins don’t deserve repeated forgiveness. And do you know what? That’s exactly right. No sin and no sinner deserves forgiveness. Whatever sin or sinner you may think of…the constantly nagging wife, the husband who loves his job more than his family; the boss who takes all your hard work for granted; the child who won’t listen to a word of advice and guidance and rebuke – who seems bound and determined to make all the same mistakes you made growing up – even though you try your best to show them a better way; the sibling who expects to get their fair share of the inheritance but is coincidentally unreachable when it comes time take care of mom or dad’s things; the fellow member who seems to be talkative and friendly with everyone but you; the pastor who doesn’t seem to appreciate all the time and effort it takes to play the organ or clean the church or put out snacks every week – none of them, in any way, deserve forgiveness. And that’s the point. Forgiveness is never deserved. If it were, it wouldn’t be forgiveness.


That’s how it works in God’s kingdom. Forgiveness cannot be earned and often, it’s not even asked for. It is based, not on the worthiness of the recipient, but on the compassion of the giver. God’s grace in Christ is the only thing that caused him to forgive us. God’s grace in Christ is the only thing that can possibly motivate us to forgive others – not because they deserve it, not because they earned it, not because they can pay us back – but because they can’t. As Paul said, we are imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1) who are kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)


If you think that imitating God is a tall order, you’re right! At the same time, don’t make the mistake of letting emotions get in the way. Forgiveness, according to Christ himself, is not a feeling; it is a conscious, deliberate decision that only a forgiven Christian can make. The heart is simply not a trustworthy compass. Jeremiah writes that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9) Just as our hearts may sometimes deceive us into thinking we are not forgiven; they can frequently lead us to think that we can’t be forgiving. That’s because the sinful nature will never want to be forgiven or forgiving. Your heart may never completely heal from that time your spouse was unfaithful to you, but you can still forgive them – meaning that you won’t try to get revenge in the courtroom or in your comments to the kids. You may never be able to wipe from your memory the abuse you suffered in the past – but neither will you expect the abuser to make it up to you – because they can’t. Your child may never ask for forgiveness and may even say that they don’t want your forgiveness – but that won’t stop you from wanting to give it. In some relationships, you may have to say “I forgive you” for the same sin day after day after day for weeks and months and years (77 or 490 times or more) – but you will say it. How? Why? Because that’s how God has forgiven you! And if you ever think you’ve run out of patience and love and pity – run back to the cross, step up to the supper the Lord has prepared for you, hear yet again – yes, even after the sins you have committed this week (which are probably the same sins as last week, and the one before) – go in peace, your sins are forgiven. Forgiven before God, that’s the only way to be forgiving before God.


So, no; no special wardrobe, special ritual, no special diet for us – because we’re citizens of God’s kingdom. Before him we are defined by being first forgiven and then, forgiving. Amen.    

Jeremiah 15:15-21 - God Doesn't Give Us What We Deserve - September 17, 2017

Our world is consumed by the idea of justice and equality – the idea that everyone deserves the exact same treatment, benefits, outcomes etc. in every area of life. Whether it’s wage equality, gender equality, marriage equality, or equality in employment and housing and opportunity – our world believes that life ought to be absolutely fair, that people should get what they deserve. And when someone thinks they’ve been treated unfairly, they aren’t afraid to let you know – this weekend’s riots in St. Louis serve once again serve as sad proof. Fairness also plays a huge role in how people relate to God. Whether it’s the Hindu concept of karma, the secular superstition of “paying it forward” or “what goes around comes around”, or even a misapplication of the Christian concept that a man ought to reap what he sows (Galatians 6:7) – it’s human nature to believe that we should get what we deserve: good people get rewarded and bad people get punished. Is that true? Should we get what we deserve? Through the prophet Jeremiah, God answers that question for us, telling us that he doesn’t give us what we deserve; a reason to repent and a reason to rejoice.


The prophet Jeremiah clearly thought he deserved better for his service as God’s spokesman to the people of Israel. Given the circumstances, we might be tempted to agree with him. The 10 northern tribes of Israel had already been defeated and carried away by the Assyrians (as punishment for their rebellion and idolatry) – and the southern kingdom, Judah, was quickly following suit. The message God had given Jeremiah to proclaim, then, was not the kind you see emblazoned on posters at Christian book stores. He was called to tell the remaining Israelites that God had run out of patience with their unbelief and punishment was on the horizon: Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go! And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ tell them, ‘This is what the LORD says: “‘Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword, to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity.’” (Jeremiah 15:1-2)


Is it any surprise that no one wanted to hear that sermon? Is it any surprise that everyone in Israel – from the lowly slave to the king –ridiculed Jeremiah, blamed him for their troubles, refused to associate with him, and even threatened his life? And yet, in spite of the persecution and the threats, Jeremiah remained faithful. He continued to preach a difficult message to an even more difficult people. It’s easy to understand why Jeremiah thought he deserved better, why he thought it wasn’t fair that he was being blamed for steadfastly preaching God’s message. And, Jeremiah sets an example we can all imitate by knowing where to take his pain and sorrow: you understand, O LORD; remember me and care for me. Avenge me on my persecutors. You are long-suffering – do not take me away; think of how I suffer reproach for your sake.


If Jeremiah had stopped there, we could say “Amen.” But Jeremiah didn’t stop. He went on: When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty. Notice that, at least at first, Jeremiah found joy in preaching God’s message. That may seem strange: he really found joy in being a minister of doom and gloom? Yes. Not because it was easy or because it brought Jeremiah fame and glory, but because it was God’s Word which brings sinners to repentance. I never sat in the company of revelers, never made merry with them; I sat alone because your hand was on me and you had filled me with indignation. Jeremiah had isolated himself from his society because he hated the rebellion, immorality, and idolatry that contaminated Israel. He was angry at Israel’s faithlessness. Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? Will you be to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails? Did you notice the two problems with Jeremiah’s complaint? Where does he base his demand for justice? In his faithfulness; his commitment to the Word, his refusal to join Israel’s pagan partying – in short, Jeremiah based his demand for justice in all the good things he had done for God. And then, who does he blame for his hardship? Not himself, for being lazy or apathetic in his ministry. He doesn’t blame the rebellious people to whom he was called to minister, a people who had betrayed the one true God and turned to idols. No, Jeremiah blames God, accusing him of a bait and switch, of promising an easy and pleasant ministry and then failing to follow through.  


Jeremiah had fallen into the trap of delusional self-righteousness. Unfortunately, it’s a trap any believer can fall into. “I’ve been a good Christian, a faithful spouse, parent, employee, I’ve been a generous giver and a willing volunteer, Lord; I deserve better!” That kind of complaint, that kind of demand for justice from God is so easy, isn’t it? And that’s because while we are often slow to recognize our ungodly attitudes, our selfish behaviors, our pet sins – we are often blind to our failures; we are quick to come up with a list of all the good things we do for God: attending worship even when the weather is nice and I could be doing something else, cleaning the church, cutting the grass, bringing snacks and flowers, bringing my child to Sunday school and coming to Bible Class, maybe even serving as an elected leader, not to mention my daily devotions, my commitment to my spouse and family, my diligent work ethic, my better than average behavior and clean language, and we could easily go on. And Satan is always right there with his pom-poms cheering us on – “Yeah, you’re one of the good ones, you’ve done a lot for God, he owes you big-time.”


But it doesn’t always seem that God gets the memo. People we love suffer tragedy, get sick, and die. Financial peace and security always seem just out of reach. Rather than honor and respect from coworkers and family and even fellow members, we feel like our faithfulness and hard work either go unnoticed or receive only criticism. Living a quiet, moral, Godly life doesn’t get us lots of friends and fans – just as often it gets us “unfriended” and ridiculed. Christian marriages are not perfect because neither spouse is perfect. Christian parents can do all they can to raise their children in the fear and knowledge of the Lord – and grieve when those same children wander away from their Savior. And, let’s be honest, even the church is not some utopian dream – with a pastor and members who are confessed and convicted sinners – there’s bound to be conflict and trouble. And sometimes we feel like we’ve reached the end of our rope; we’re ready to give up; the cross is heavy and we want nothing more than to set it down and give up the fight. We turn to God with outstretched hands and say: “what gives, God? I’m doing my best for you and all you give me back is pain and hardship? I deserve better!”

Jeremiah wasn’t the first believer to think that way, and he wasn’t the last. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. Do you want to know the truth? Do you want to hear what we really deserve? Isaiah tells us: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. (Isaiah 64:6) Paul adds: 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 become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12); and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) The truth is that none of us has lived a life that meets, much less surpasses God’s expectations; we don’t deserve a reward from God for what we’ve done. The only thing we truly deserve to hear is: depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41) Beware of demanding that God give you what you deserve – because he will give it to those who demand it.


Whenever a believer is stuck in the rut of deluded self-righteousness and self-pity – they need to be shocked back to reality. And in a calm but firm way, that’s what God did for Jeremiah: If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman. Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them. How did God respond to Jeremiah’s woe-is-me attitude? He didn’t even dignify Jeremiah’s complaint with a direct response. He didn’t say, “You’re right, Jeremiah, you do deserve better, I apologize.” He didn’t promise to take all of the trouble out of Jeremiah’s life nor did he lift the curtain of divine providence to show Jeremiah why all this hardship was happening to him. No, God slaps Jeremiah in the face with the word “repent.” “Stop questioning my wisdom, stop inflating your own goodness, turn to me, listen to my voice, serve me, grab hold of my promises, and forget about yourself.” With all of his complaining and self-pity, Jeremiah had become just like the rebellious and idolatrous Israelites he was supposed to be ministering to. But in his grace, God turned (“repented” him) Jeremiah from his sin and restored him. He cleansed Jeremiah’s lips of his worthless complaints and gave him worthy words. In that final verse, with the word redeem, God was pointing Jeremiah ahead 700 years to Jesus, who would pay the price for his sins of doubt and complaining, who would buy him back from the punishment in hell he deserved. In his call to repentance, God promised to give Jeremiah the opposite of what he deserved: forgiveness of sins, peace, and eternal life.  


We too have received what we don’t deserve. When we stray, we don’t deserve to have God send his representatives into our lives to shock us back to reality – but God does it because he loves us too much to let us wander all the way to hell. When we complain about God’s justice, he would be absolutely justified in sending a bolt of lightning to vaporize us. And yet, God doesn’t. Paul explained why: he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Timothy 3:9) Most importantly, we don’t deserve to be forgiven, cleansed, and restored – but that’s what makes God’s grace, grace – we don’t deserve it. As Paul wrote in Romans: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8) (If we want to talk about inequality and unfairness – the place to start and end – is with the cross of Christ.) We don’t deserve to look forward to eternal life – but because Jesus wore a crown of thorns on the throne of the cross, we can be certain that we will wear the crown of life. We don’t even deserve to serve God, to take up our cross and suffer for the sake of following Jesus. We don’t deserve to receive the criticism, ridicule, pain and hardship that come from bearing the name of Christ, but God in his mercy gives us this privilege.


All of which means that the lesson Jeremiah learned 2700 years ago still applies to today: God never promises that following Jesus in this world of sin will be easy and pain free – in fact, Jesus tells us just the opposite, he says that following him will mean carrying a cross, not lounging in a La-Z Boy. (Matthew 16:24) But as we struggle, he does promise to fortify us, he promises to make us bronze walls – he promises to stand behind his Word – both law and gospel – and through it he will give us the strength to stand firm against everything Satan and the world can throw at us. And, even when we aren’t firm, even when we fall, Jesus promises to come to us in his Word and in his body and blood in His Supper to pick us up and put us back on our feet. He promises that even our greatest enemies can’t hurt us because He has defeated them once and for all. And, in the end, God promises that the struggle of this life is only temporary – it will end. And even though we may be bruised and broken, even though every one of us will have to admit that nothing we have done meets God’s perfect standard, God will cover us with his Son’s perfect life, he will leave our sins buried and forgotten in Jesus’ tomb, he will welcome us into paradise with open arms and say well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21) The promise God made to Jeremiah still stands for repentant believers: I will save you from the hands of the wicked and redeem you from the grasp of the cruel. When the going gets tough, when the cross gets heavy, find relief and a reason to rejoice in the fact that God doesn’t give us what we deserve – he gives us so much more!


In a world that doesn’t really know what it is asking for when it demands absolute justice – we give thanks today that God doesn’t give us what we deserve. When delusional self-righteousness tempts you to believe that you deserve better for your service to Christ, give it what it deserves – put it to death through repentance – and because of Jesus, rejoice that the Lord gives us so much more than we deserve. The Christian life isn’t fair. Thank God! Amen.   

Revelation 7:1-8 - The Church Will Stand Forever - September 10, 2017

Revelation is almost always considered to be one of the most challenging of the books in the Bible. Humans don’t like leaving difficulties unresolved, and so many have sought to resolve the challenge of Revelation in one of two ways: 1) some all but ignore it and the realities it contains – angels and demons, God vs. Satan, heaven and hell, death and judgment – in favor of a Christianity focused exclusively on here and now – so you can be happy, healthy and prosperous in this life. 2) Others have taken the book of Revelation as a challenge to use their imaginations to formulate their own solutions – as if God were saying “here’s a riddle for you, solve it however you want.” Revelation is challenging. It takes time and effort to correctly understand its fantastic language and vivid symbolism. But God did not give us this book so that we would ignore it or make up our own meanings for it; no, God gave us this book for our comfort, to show us what is happening in the world now and what will happen before the end of the world. The challenge for us then, is to closely examine the text to see what God is telling us and, if any part is unclear, to search the rest of Scripture for clarity and illumination.  Revelation might seem complex, but its message is very simple: Jesus wins! And the vision before us this morning shows us what that means for the Church. It means that the Church will stand forever; safe from harm and complete in number.


Many false interpretations of this section are rooted in the very first words: after this I saw. Revelation 6 described Judgment Day – and all its horror for unbelievers – using the familiar imagery of the 4 horsemen. The four horsemen are the messengers God sends to bring war, famine, and death on earth. But it would be a mistake to read chapter 7 as the next in a series of events. Revelation, like much of Scripture, does not follow chronological order. As a whole Revelation is a grand portrait of the entire New Testament era (the time between Jesus’ first and second coming) so that, while chapter 6 focused on the terrible calamities God will unleash on his enemies, chapter 7 reveals what will happen to God’s people.


John saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth. While we know that our spherical planet does not have literal corners, we still refer to the four corners of the planet as a way of talking about the whole. So, as the angels are standing at the four corners of the earth, they are guarding the entire planet, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Given the two hurricanes that have struck the continental US in the past two weeks, we know the destructive power of wind. This is the only mention of these winds in Revelation, but elsewhere in Scripture, like Jeremiah 49, it becomes clear that these are apocalyptic, world-destroying winds. (Jeremiah 49:36) When these winds blow, they will wipe out everything on earth – down to the last tree, destroying this fallen creation in preparation for the new heaven and new earth God will create for his people. (Revelation 21:1)


Hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused incredible destruction, but still God’s angels are holding the worst back because something else must happen first. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” Why do you put a seal on something? Well, parents, now that school has resumed I imagine you have grown tired of placing your children’s seal on their books, bags, lunchboxes and clothing. In this case, their seal is their name. It marks ownership. It lets everyone know who this item belongs to. “Marking” or “sealing” is commonplace in our world. When Joel was born, one of the first things the nurse did was wrap a nametag around his ankle – sealing him as “baby Janke.” Ranchers brand their cattle, etc. We mark things to show possession and ownership.


And that’s precisely what the angel is doing. He’s not marking books or cattle but human beings with the seal of the living God. Here’s where the symbolism comes in. We know that God does not literally come to mark us with a stamp or barcode or, thankfully, sear us with a cattle brand. But God does, nonetheless, mark us as his very own. We were privileged to witness this sealing once again this morning. Clara Mae received the sign of the cross on her head and heart to mark her, seal her, as a redeemed child of God – a child who has been washed free from sin and given a new life of faith in the waters of Baptism. God, in his grace, has chosen the simple, unremarkable tools of water and the Word to adopt us and seal us as his children. And because God is the one working in Baptism, because it is sealed with his Word and his Promise – nothing and no one can take that away from you. No financial struggle or natural disaster, no unexpected tragedy or chronic disease – can remove God’s seal. Even if the worst should happen, even if someone were to take your life, even if they were to take your life because you are one of God’s servants – the only result is that you would get to the safety of heaven even quicker.


This might sound like a stretch, but in fact it harmonizes perfectly with the rest of Scripture. This “safety seal” is exactly what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel lesson. Jesus promised that nothing could ever destroy the Church because the Church is not built on sinful humans like Peter, you or me; not on false ideas of who Jesus was and is – but on the real, historical Jesus: God’s Son and the promised Savior. He laid the church’s foundation by his perfect life and his innocent death. His mission was to achieve salvation for a world of sinners and Easter’s empty tomb proves that he has accomplished this mission. His finished work of salvation is the bedrock on which the Church stands – and nothing will be able to overcome it.


God’s seal guarantees that though hurricanes may blow and nations may bang the drums of war, though terrorists scheme and godless governments try to stifle the gospel message, though the past is filled with guilt and the future is dark with uncertainty – God controls it all for the good of his servants. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant removed,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 54:10) Satan and our sinful flesh tempt us to doubt this, they lead us to question if we are really safe – because after all, the seal is something we cannot see or touch. And that’s why we need to go to the one place we can see it. We see it in the pages of Scripture where Paul declares that God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his.” (2 Timothy 2:19) We see it when we step to the Lord’s Table to receive our Savior’s body and blood, the seal of forgiveness that we can touch and taste. Whenever the sign of the cross is made we are taken back to the moment of our own adoption – our Baptism – and reminded that God will never break his Word. No, we cannot see God’s seal and quite often the uncertainty of life makes us doubt if it’s even real. But every time we hear the declaration of God’s full and free forgiveness, every time we receive his Sacrament, every time we hear his Gospel, every time we leave here with his blessing – the Holy Spirit is testifying that because we are sealed as God’s servants, we are safe from harm.


And now things get really interesting: Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. There are two popular misinterpretations of this passage. The first, taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses, is the teaching that 144,000 believers who have received a special “anointing” will go to heaven to be with Christ, all other believers will experience a second-tier paradise on earth, and unbelievers will simply cease to exist. The second, which is sadly spread by many Christians who teach the false doctrine of Dispensationalism, is that when Jesus returns he will call a literal 144,000 Jews from the tribes of Israel to be sealed for salvation. Now, could God do those things? Could he decide to take 144,000 specially “anointed” believers or take 144,000 Jews to be with him in heaven? Certainly. He’s God. But that’s not the question. The question is whether that is what God intends to say here.


Remember, much of Revelation is symbolic – so that we will always get into trouble if we try to read it literalistically. The tribes and numbers here are symbols of something larger and greater. How do we know? Well, no other listing of the literal, historical twelve tribes of Israel in the entire Bible lists them in this fashion. (see 1 Chronicles 2:1-2; Genesis 35:23-26) Two of the original 12 tribes – Dan and Ephraim – are missing, replaced by Levi and Joseph. Also, the tribes all varied in size (see Numbers 1 & 2), so for precisely 12,000 faithful believers to be found in each tribe would be a remarkable coincidence. And yet, even those are not conclusive for us. No, our conclusion that this cannot mean that a literal 144,000 will be saved, Jewish or otherwise, comes in the verse that follows our text, where John writes: after this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9) 144,000 symbolizes the great multitude that no one could count, emphasizing that everyone God elected to salvation will, in fact, be saved. (122 (# of the church) x 103 (# of completeness) = 144,000.) When we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture we see that this is not a literal picture of historical Israel but a symbolic picture of the entire Church on earth – those who belong to God not by virtue of ethnicity but through faith in Christ. (see Romans 9:8)


The most important question, then, is: how do I know that I belong to that number, sealed as God’s servant, safe and sound in Christ’s church. With the 10 commandments still ringing in our ears, we know that we don’t deserve to be counted in this number. Since our Baptisms we have broken God’s commandments more times than we can count, we have turned our backs on his Word and Sacraments, we have rejected his will for our lives. If we were to ask those closest to us if our faith is evident in our lives, we would be ashamed at the answer. If we were asked if we live every day confident that God will keep us safe from all harm, we would have to confess that the dangers and temptations of the world have shaken our confidence. If it’s up to us, we could never be certain that we will be counted among God’s sealed and saved saints on the Last Day. Thank God that our lives, our performance, even our faith are not the foundation of salvation. Christ is. His death washes away every last one of our sins. His perfect life is the white robe of holiness that covers us. His promises and power keep us safe in this life and will carry us to the next. The number of believers is complete, not because of anything we have done – but because of what Christ has done for us. How appropriate it is, then, that the world-wide symbol of the Christian Church is not a gold coin or a hammer and sickle or any pledge or promise we might make – but the cross. (Which, appropriately enough, is the same seal (Hebrew letter taw) that that was placed on the faithful in Ezekiel 9.) The cross where Christ paid for the sins of the world is what makes us certain that we are counted among God’s chosen saints. The cross of Christ, who lives and reigns with his Father ruling all things for the benefit of the Church (Ephesians 1:22), is what guarantees that God’s church will stand forever, will be complete in number – and that not a single one of his saints will be forgotten.


Revelation can be a difficult book – if you try to impose your own meaning on it or if you expect it to say something different from the rest of the Bible. It doesn’t. Revelation resounds with the exact same message the rest of the Bible does: it tells us that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It tells us that the Christian Church is built on the rock-solid foundation of his life, death, and resurrection. It tells us that those who have been sealed as God’s servants through faith are safe from all harm and that not one of them will be missed by our all-seeing, all-knowing God. It tells us that Christ’s bride, the church, will stand forever – and not even the gates of hell can overcome it. Amen.  

Exodus 20:1-2, 5-6 - God Means What He Says - September 3, 2017

Whenever a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, there are always those who claim that if they had only been warned they could have been better prepared and they would have been able to spare themselves pain and loss. With Hurricane Harvey, I’m not sure those complaints have any validity. Even those of us living thousands of miles from southeastern Texas heard the alerts and warnings about this storm. Those who heard the advisories to prepare for the worst (maybe even evacuate their homes), and yet ignored them, have no one but themselves to blame. In a similar way, there is a day of reckoning coming for all mankind; one that will make Hurricane Harvey seem like a light drizzle. Jesus described it in vivid detail in our Gospel lesson. Judgment Day will come swiftly, without warning and its effects will be universal and eternal. But that doesn’t mean that God leaves us unprepared. Today we close our study of the 10 commandments with what Luther labeled the Conclusion (even though it is actually an addendum to the 1st commandment). In these verses God reveals that he means what he says. He’s jealous, He will punish, and he’s merciful.


You might think that the Israelites didn’t need this warning. After all, Israel was encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai; a mountain that had been shrouded in the smoke of God’s glory; a mountain that shook with thunder and flashed with lightning; a mountain, so holy that anyone who touched it was to be executed on the spot (Exodus 19:12-13). I suppose it was somewhat similar to standing on Galveston Island as Harvey approached: you didn’t need a government warning to tell you this was serious. And yet, what did the Israelites do while Moses was on that mountain with the LORD? Under Aaron’s leadership they fashioned a calf out of gold and worshiped it as the one who had rescued them from Egypt (Exodus 32). That is the awful power of unbelief. Unbelief is the foolish, unreasonable, outrageous denial of the clear and obvious truth that God does exist and we are accountable to him. The power of unbelief to deceive is why we also need this warning. Especially today, especially for us, because we live in a post-modern world where we’re told that words don’t mean anything, truth is a relative, subjective thing, and God and his will can be whatever you want them to be. In this Conclusion, God is telling the world that he means what he says, he is serious about his commandments, so that when he returns in judgment no one will be able to say “if only I had known better.”


The first thing God wants to make crystal clear is his claim on our hearts and souls and lives: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. You know Oprah Winfrey? Talk show host, author, cult leader? Oprah couldn’t stand the thought of a jealous God. She claims that it is what turned her off from orthodox Christianity. Here’s what she said: “I looked around and thought, “why would God be jealous? What does that even mean?” And I’m looking at the people in the church…and I started wondering how many of these people – including myself – would be led to do whatever this preacher said. That’s when I started exploring taking God out of the box, out of the pew. And eventually I got to where I was able to see God in other people and in all things – in graciousness and kindness and generosity and the spirit of things.” [1] Oprah rejected the one true God in favor of her own fabrication. In an effort to be charitable, maybe Oprah was never really taught the truths of Scripture. More likely, however, is that she is working with the wrong definition of jealousy. English speakers often confuse “jealousy” and “envy.” Envy is a sinful desire for something that doesn’t belong to you. Jealousy is a strong desire for something that is your possession. God is fiercely jealous of his position and possessions – which includes everything. And with God, jealousy is not just a feeling, it is an action. It is his activity in conquering everything and everyone who opposes his will and his zeal for all people to recognize and believe in him as the only true God, the only Judge of mankind, and the only Savior of sinners.


Parents get this. Parents are notoriously jealous of who and how their children are raised and disciplined and taught and fed. Rightfully so. God has given parents – and no one else – the responsibility and privilege to raise their children in line with his will. The love, the jealousy that parents feel toward their children is a good, God-pleasing desire. And parents are right to be angry with anyone who presumes to step in and take their place, subverting their authority and changing their rules.


So how should God feel when his creatures reject his authority and subvert his rule? Think of the love and care that went into creating a perfect universe – from the finely tuned physics that allow for a total eclipse of the sun to the delicate handiwork of stitching together a fetus in the womb. Think of the price God paid for us in handing his own Son over to death for us. That’s really what Oprah – and those like her – don’t understand. It’s not really that they don’t like God’s authority or Law, it’s that they don’t believe the Gospel. We are not our own, we were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) We belong to God and God’s jealousy, his deep desire for us to fear, love and trust in him above all things is actually an expression of his love. God loves us so much that he refuses to let anyone or anything else take his place in our hearts. He loves us so much that he denies anyone the right to change or nullify his commandments, which protect his gifts to us and our neighbor. God is serious. He means what he says. He is jealous of you. He created you. He saved you. He wants you to be with him forever in heaven. And he doesn’t want anything to separate you from his love.


And yet, every time we let something else become the authority in our lives – be it our own reason or emotions or the godless culture around us; every time we follow another set of rules – be it the law of tolerance or political correctness; every time we disobey or contradict a commandment of God – we are rejecting God’s legal claim on us and rebelling against his good and perfect will. Sadly, much of the visible Christian church has taken that path, has compromised God’s Word, distorted God’s will, and has turned God into an unserious, wish granting genie. And we all know people who have bought into that false view of God. They are those who say, “I’ll take God’s Word seriously later, when I have life figured out”; “the God I believe in would never send anyone to hell”; “I think I have God’s favor because I try really hard to be a good person”; or “I think God understands when I impenitently and intentionally disobey his will.”


God himself tells a much different story: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. Contrary to what Oprah and those like her want to believe, God is serious about his commandments – and he will punish those who break them. We may object: “but it’s not fair that God would punish children for their parents’ sins!” And that would be true (Ezekiel 18:20 – The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.) if that’s what God said. God didn’t say that. He said he will punish the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. The point is that successive generations tend to follow in the sins they have learned from their parents – especially the sin of unbelief. Parents, grandparents – God is talking to us. God is certifying here that the apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe you are willing to risk God’s judgment over your own sins – but what about the souls of your children? God is serious. He will punish sin. Time and again in history, God followed through on his threats. God drowned the world in a flood to rid it of the filth of sin in the time of Noah. (Genesis 6-8) God’s fury burned the people of Sodom and Gomorrah alive for their sexual immorality and unbelief. (Genesis 19) He sent his chosen people, Israel, into exile as punishment for their idolatry and rebellion. (2 Kings 25) In Revelation 21 Jesus makes it clear that God still means what he says about sin and punishment: the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. (Revelation 21:8) There are those who think that proclaiming and practicing God’s unforgiving Law is harsh and unloving and might scare people away from church. They are dead wrong. Better to be disciplined here and now – to be shown your sin and brought to repentance – than to spend eternity burning in hell. God means it when he threatens punishment for sin. He’s not playing around. The LORD your God is a jealous God who will punish sin.


God’s Law is terrifying. It makes us tremble at the thought of breaking even the smallest of the commandments. Is that what God wants? Does he want us to fear his anger? Yes. Fear of punishment is the curb God uses to keep us from hurting ourselves and others. But there is another side to God’s jealousy – the side which shows us that God is so jealous of us that he was unwilling to let us suffer the punishment we deserve. And remember, God’s jealousy is never just an attitude or hopeful dream; it’s an action: showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (There are two Hebrew words translated “love” in this verse. The first is better translated “mercy” or “undeserved love.” Showing “mercy” to a thousand generations…) For all the guilt we feel for not taking God’s commandments seriously, the times we have rejected God’s authority in our lives, the times we not only sinned but led others to follow our example – here’s the good news: God’s mercy is greater. God’s mercy doesn’t just take away some of our guilt, rebellion and sin – it covers us completely, like Hurricane Harvey covered Houston. Consider God’s own description: to a thousand generations. If a generation is 20 or 30 years, the world has not yet reached a thousand generations and perhaps never will – that’s how great God’s mercy is. Paul distilled this relationship between God’s wrath and his mercy in his letter to the Romans: the law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)


Sinful human reason rejects this. Human reason refuses to allow justice and mercy to exist simultaneously. Human reason argues that either our sin isn’t really that bad or that God’s mercy is conditioned on something we must do. But the Conclusion makes it clear that God is both just and merciful at the same time. How is that possible? How does that make any sense? There’s only one way this makes sense: viewing it through Christ and his cross. On Calvary God demonstrated that his wrath and his threats are real. On the cross Jesus experienced ever last ounce of God’s righteous anger and the full horror of hell. God’s punishment is real. Where is his mercy? You and I weren’t there; we weren’t the ones stripped and whipped and nailed to a tree and forced to burn in the lake of fire like we deserved. God punished his Son in our place. That’s mercy, that’s undeserved love. God’s wrath is certainly great, but because Jesus drained every last drop of it, God’s mercy is even greater. King Solomon put it this way because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23) If you ever doubt that God means what he says, look to the cross. There you see real jealousy, real punishment, and real mercy.


Today we leave our study of the 10 commandments, but don’t let them ever leave your heart and mind. For in them you see the pulsing heart of God. You see his holiness, his perfect will, his desire to protect the good gifts he has given you. You also see how terribly short we have fallen. But when God’s commandments have led us to the goal of repentance, then we are ready for the Gospel to point us to our Savior. God means what he says. He is jealous. He will punish. And he’s merciful. So take God at his Word and trust that for Jesus’ sake you will hear these glorious words when he returns: come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Matthew 25:34) Amen.



Exodus 20:1-2, 17 - God Guards His Gift of Contentment - August 27, 2017

You shall not covet. This is a very personal command, so I’m going to ask a very personal question: Do you remember a time you committed the sin of coveting? I do. For several years it happened almost annually when that little treasure called the Sears Catalog showed up in the mail box. Consisting of nearly a thousand pages of every toy and trinket ever conceived, I remember sitting at the kitchen table paging through the Sears Catalog, thinking: “Wow, there are so many things in here I didn’t even know I wanted!” The problem wasn’t necessarily the wanting – if Sears was willing to sell it, I was free to beg my parents to buy it. No, the real problem was that it made me ungrateful for what I already had and awakened the ugly head of greed – the constant desire for more. I don’t think Sears prints those catalogs anymore, but the world still specializes in tempting us to want the new, shiny things parked at the dealership or hanging on the rack or available on Every day Satan leads us to believe that we don’t have everything we need to be happy. The question is: what does God think of these feelings of dissatisfaction, our lack of contentment, our constant desire for more, newer, better? The last two commandments make God’s judgment clear: You shall not covet. God guards his gift of contentment; a gift the world cannot give, a gift found only in Christ.


The Hebrew word for covet (hamad) is a neutral word, meaning that context must determine whether it is being used positively or negatively. It is used both ways in the beginning of Genesis. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground – trees that were pleasing (hamad) to the eye and good for food. (Genesis 2:9) Adam and Eve’s desire to enjoy and eat from these trees was a good thing – because God created them for this very purpose. On the other hand, God put another tree in the Garden, one which he commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from. And yet, when the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing (hamad) to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. (Genesis 3:6) God created us in his image with a truly free will and good and holy desires, so that we would only want what he wants. But sin ruined everything. It corrupted our hearts, distorted our desires, and enslaved our will. Sin leads us to want what God doesn’t want us to have and to be indifferent towards the things God really wants to give us. Only when God the Holy Spirit creates new hearts in us through the power of the Gospel can we again desire – or covet – the right things. We’ll come back to that later.


The fact that God gives this command – do not covet – twice confirms what we learned in Mark and James: the most devious and persistent enemy we face is not something out there, it’s in here, beating away in our chests. Jeremiah wrote the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jeremiah 17:9) Coveting, even if we never act on it, is wrong. It is the sinful desire to have what God hasn’t given us or doesn’t want us to have. We see three general categories of coveting in Scripture. 1) Wanting something you can’t or shouldn’t want to have. King David had more wives and concubines than any man should want or need (2 Samuel 5:13), yet his heart was filled with lust for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a woman he could not have and should not have wanted. Secondly, 2) wanting something so badly we are willing to sin to get it. Think of the story of Naboth’s vineyard. (1 Kings 21) Ahab wanted Naboth’s property so badly that he allowed Jezebel to have him publicly executed to get it. 3) The third way coveting rears its ugly head is when it leads us to get mad at God. Think of Job’s wife, who urged him to curse God for taking away his home, health and family. (Job 2:9) Has God taken something away from you? Do you feel like God is holding out on you? Is your plan for your life different from God’s plan? How do you react? As James explained, anything less than humble submission to God’s will is sin. (James 4:1-10)


The great challenge we face is that our world sees nothing wrong with coveting. It encourages it, even praises it. (How many people do you think fantasized about what they would do with last week’s $758 million PowerBall jackpot? Did you? Or, why do you think virtual reality and video games are so popular? Because people want to live out their fantasies without facing any consequences.) Because God’s will is at odds with the ways of the world, it feels oppressive when he comes along and tells us that our very thoughts, dreams and fantasies are sinful. Why does he do that? Why does God care so much about our hidden desires, our wants and wishes that no one else can see and we may never act on? James explains: after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15) Coveting is dangerous because it rarely stays penned up in our hearts. Like an infectious disease it spreads from our hearts to our hands and lips and lives. Coveting is the gateway to every other sin. Disrespect for authority leads to anarchy and rebellion. Hatred leads to murder. Lust leads to adultery. Greed leads to theft. Envy leads to slander. By cutting those sins off at the root, God safeguards us from ever merging onto that dire road that leads to death.


But there’s another danger contained in the “little” sin of coveting. A covetous heart is incompatible with faith. Satan and the world want us to believe that they can offer us someone or something that will lead us to be truly happy, truly content. This is perhaps the greatest and most devious lie ever told. It was at the root of Eve’s desire for the forbidden fruit, David’s adultery, Ahab’s treachery, and Judas’ betrayal – and we know how those stories ended, don’t we? Whenever we are tempted to whine or complain about God’s design for our lives, we need to make a connection that very few people ever make: coveting and unbelief go hand in hand. It is saying that God is not good, or at least not to me, or at least not as good as he is to others. Coveting stands in direct contradiction to the Bible’s definitive assertion that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. (James 1:17) Or recall Job’s response to his wife: you are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble? (Job 2:10) Let’s trace that path from coveting to unbelief. When we covet something God does not want us to have, we are saying that God doesn’t know what is best for us and we will stop looking to him in times of need and stop praising him for his blessings. When we stop looking to God for all good things we stop hearing his Word, stop receiving his Sacrament, stop living in his baptismal grace. When we stop receiving the grace God dispenses only in Word and Sacrament our faith shrivels up and dies. And dead faith cannot, will not look to Jesus for salvation. And there’s only one place for people who do not trust God’s goodness, do not receive his grace, and do not look to Jesus. Coveting may seem like a minor sin, but traced to its inevitable conclusion, coveting leads to hell. And there’s nothing harmless about hell.

Because the sin of coveting is invisible to others, these commandments demand self-examination. What do you want that God has decided not to give you? What do you want that God has given someone else? What has God taken from (or given you) you that makes you angry, that makes you accuse him of being unfair or unloving? The 9th and 10th commandments require us to recognize coveting as a sin, to see it in our hearts and to repent. They teach us to recognize that this world cannot offer what we truly want and need and they drive us, with a broken and penitent heart, to the only one who can grant true contentment.


Which leads us back to the positive side of coveting. God gave us our ability to desire, he gave us a will – even though it is no longer free. And so there is a God-pleasing kind of coveting. C. S. Lewis wrote: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory) Why do we so often feel discontented and dissatisfied? Because we are searching for contentment in all the wrong places. Instead of desiring the true peace God promises in his absolution, we try to drown our guilt in alcohol or numb it with pills or justify it with excuses – things that can never, ever actually remove the stain of sin. Instead of coveting the spouse God has given us or praying for or patiently waiting for God to give us a spouse we try to satisfy our sexual desires outside of marriage – which only leads to broken hearts, broken marriages, and broken families. Instead of living in daily contentment with what God has given us, we break our backs, we stress and scrimp and save, we spend countless sleepless nights desiring more, better, newer – and while that may be the American Dream, it never leads to a contented heart.


Do you see how coveting, like all sin, is slavery? It’s slavery to our own self-centered desires, it’s slavery to this world’s marketing gimmicks, it’s slavery to Satan’s false promises. It’s all a deception. It’s all a shell-game. The longing we feel, the satisfaction we want is essentially a desire for freedom. Whether we know it or not, our deepest longing is to be at peace with God, to be holy like God, to be with God. And because God knew that our hearts are so terribly twisted by sin that we could never free ourselves – he did it for us. He gave us a new heart. He gave us his heart. He sent us Jesus. Look at Jesus and you will see how much God coveted you, how his greatest desire is that you might be holy like him and live with him forever. Jesus is the only one to walk this earth who always, only had pure desires in his heart. He was truly content with God’s will and God’s ways. He was King of kings, but he was content to be born in a barn in the backwoods of Israel. He was content to grow up in near-poverty in Nazareth. He was content to survive day to day trusting that the Gospel would lead people to provide for his every need. He was content to be mocked and slandered and harassed by the religious and political leaders of his day. He was content to ride into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey. He was content to have nothing in his estate, nothing to leave his disciples except his body and blood. As he walked into the shadow of the cross, he pleaded with his Father to find another way to save sinners. When his Father denied his request, Jesus was perfectly willing to walk the long, lonely road through torture, crucifixion, hell and death to save us. And even in death, Jesus was content. He was content to be laid in a stranger’s tomb because he knew that his real home was at his Father’s side in heaven. Admittedly, Jesus doesn’t seem all that desirable. Isaiah confesses: he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire (hamad) him…yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…[as] a guilt offering for our sins. (Isaiah 53:2, 10) If you want forgiveness, if you want freedom, if you want contentment, the only place to find it is in Christ and his cross.


Because Jesus was perfectly content to carry out his Father’s will and his Father’s plan, the chains of covetousness that previously bound your heart have been broken. You are forgiven. You are cleansed. You are changed. The freedom you have been longing for is yours in Christ. Now you can see the big picture: that the most desirable things, the things that contentment are made of, are not found on or in your neighbor’s driveway or bedroom. Take a moment today to thank God for the blessings he has already given you: spouse, family, home, car, job, health – recognize those as gifts from God, desire them, covet them because God wants you to have them. And take time to covet the greater spiritual blessings God promises: peace – right here and now through the forgiveness of sins; security – the assurance God will provide for your every need today and every day; joy – that neither poverty nor bankruptcy nor sickness nor death can separate you from your Savior’s love; and hope – the sure, certain hope that your deepest desires will finally, fully be satisfied when God calls you home to spend eternity with him in paradise.


Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. (Colossians 3:1-2) Our world thinks that finding contentment is some kind of secret. It’s no secret at all. True contentment is found only in the Gospel of Christ crucified for us. Christ has freed us from wasting our time chasing after the mud pies of this world so that we can desire the true riches of heaven. Treasure the things God has given you, desire the things God has promised you, and rejoice that God coveted you so much that he sent his dearest possession to die for you. Keep your eyes on Christ, and you will always be content. Amen.  

Exodus 1-2, 15 - Christian Property Management - August 13, 2017

As his ministry drew to an end, only days before he was hung on a cross to die for the sins of the world, Jesus told his disciples the parable of the talents. (Matthew 25:14-30) In it he described a man who was going on a journey and entrusted his property to his servants for safe-keeping. After a long time the master returned from his trip and called his servants to account for how they had managed his property. Because as sinners we have a tendency to think that some things, especially material things, are not really related to our spiritual life, are not really God’s business, Jesus told this parable to clarify a few things for us while we await his return. First, as we sang in Psalm 24 the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it (Psalm 24:1) – so how we spend our money, use our possessions, cultivate our abilities IS God’s business. Second, God has loaned us his property, not to use as we wish, but according to the will of the owner. And third, he will return and will call us to account for how we have managed his possessions. Those are the principles we will keep in mind as we consider the 7th commandment. In which God himself gives us a lesson in finance; teaching us Christian property management – that we are to manage our hearts and our possessions and leave the rest to God.


Luther, in his Large Catechism, focuses most of his attention, not on brazen sins like breaking and entering or armed robbery – he commits those sins to the hangman; he focuses on what he calls “open thieves” – those who rob and steal from others in plain sight. That’s in line with Hebrew word for “steal” (ganab) which emphasizes taking things in a secret or deceptive manner. Today, while we could attempt to list all of the ways stealing can and does take place: by filing dishonest or fraudulent tax forms, by putting in less than an honest day’s work for a full day’s paycheck, by calling in sick when we aren’t, neglecting to scan an item at the self-checkout, withholding our offerings from God, laziness, wastefulness etc., our time is better spent addressing the source of it all: the heart.


Our Gospel lesson exposed the danger of a greedy heart. Jesus was in the middle of a sermon about the things that decide whether a person will spend eternity in heaven or hell when he is interrupted by a man with something else on his mind: teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. (Luke 12:13) Jesus is talking about salvation and judgment, and all this guy can think about is getting his hands on his relative’s estate. On a side note: pastors see this sort of thing all the time. Many of my day-to-day contacts with non-members – sometimes with members – have to do with material things: rent payments, gas money, medical bills, estates and inheritances, etc. It’s gut-wrenching to see how people get so wrapped up in the temporary, trivial things of this world while they allow the true riches of forgiveness, the Word of God and the Sacraments blow by like pieces of trash.


Jesus responded by ignoring the request and exposing the real issue: watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. (Luke 12:15) Greed, as Jesus defines it (pleonexia), is the constant desire to have more. John D. Rockefeller, one of America’s first millionaires, is often considered the poster-boy for greed. Once asked “how much is enough?” He responded, “A little bit more.” At the same time, greed is not tied to any one tax bracket; it is common to rich and poor and middle class alike. The problem is not having wealth. (Job, Abraham, and David were richly blessed by God and were commended as fine examples of faith.) The problem is always wanting more. So the first issue that this commandment addresses has nothing to do with stuff, it has to do with our hearts. What is our attitude towards wealth and stuff? Do we think that just a little – or maybe a lot – more would make us truly happy? Does our desire for the stuff this world offers ever get in the way of receiving the blessings God wants to offer us? What does our attitude towards wealth teach our children and neighbors? We might believe that we have kept this commandment as long as we haven’t committed armed robbery, but Jesus teaches that greed is stealing in God’s eyes.


Living in a free-market capitalistic society, it’s impossible to enumerate all the ways this commandment can be broken, but the famous artist, Norman Rockwell, put his finger on the “open thievery” that takes place every day in our world. (Illustration) Are they thieves? They wouldn’t dare rob a bank or steal a car – and wouldn’t rank a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list – and yet they see nothing wrong with gaining an advantage for themselves at the cost of the other. Watch out: what the world might call “driving a hard bargain” or “smart shopping” is often the sinful result of greed. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Christian property management starts with managing our hearts through daily repentance for our greedy desires and less-than-honest ways.


But it doesn’t end there. What we do with the stuff God has loaned to us is known as “stewardship”. A steward is a caretaker or manager. When we hear the word stewardship, we typically think only of money. But God has given us so much more than money. (Which is why, properly speaking, every sermon is a “stewardship” sermon – even if we don’t bring up dollars and cents!) He has given us families to care for and love and bring to Jesus, a certain number of hours, days, and years to spend wisely, a variety of talents and abilities to use to his glory, our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, our faith – which needs regular feeding, and he has given us his Word and Sacraments – treasures more precious than all the gold in all the banks in all the world. As Paul told the Romans, money is not the only offering God expects from us: I urge you…in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1) Everything we are, everything we have, everyone around us are gifts on loan from God – gifts he expects us to manage to his glory.


That being said, the 7th commandment does narrow down our stewardship focus this morning to the possessions God has loaned us. Just as the 6th commandment showed us that the way we use our bodies has everything to do with our relationship with God, so our earthly, economic life cannot be separated from our eternal, spiritual life. We don’t like to hear that, do we? We have a tendency to want to divide up, to compartmentalize our lives: there’s my spiritual life, my time spent in church and devotion, the time I volunteer and the offerings if give; and then there’s everything else – and God, you keep your hands off; mind your own business! Scripture makes it clear that there is no separating the physical from the spiritual. Just ask Esau, who sold his spiritual birthright for a bowl of stew (Genesis 25-27); or the fool in Jesus’ parable who thought he had enough stuff to see him through life – he did; and it cost him his eternity (Luke 12:16-21); or Judas, who sold his Savior to his enemies and his soul to Satan for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 27:1-10). The stuff in our lives – the food, the house, the car, the job, the bank account, the family and friends – all these can either point us to the giver or lead us away from him.


Scripture shows us three main areas in which God wants us to manage his property. The first is providing for our families. Paul told Timothy: If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8) “Providing” includes more than putting food on the table and a roof over their heads. Our families need more than nice clothes and good schools and the newest toys; they need our love and attention, our compassion, our time and our guidance, our discipline and instruction in the Word of God. Be aware that Satan is a skilled scam artist. He can lead us to do things in the name of “providing for our families” – be it spending too much time at work or placing too much importance on career advancement; while the whole time we are stealing the time and love and energy our families really need.


The 2nd area is spelled out by Paul in Romans: This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: if you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect, if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:6-7) Did you know that paying taxes gives glory to God? Sometimes people question the morality of paying taxes to a government who might turn around to use them for ungodly and anti-Christian purposes. Why should we support policies and politicians that are contrary to God’s will and Word? Because God tells us to. When it comes to how tax dollars are used or misused, our responsibility is to submit to the governing authorities – and leave the judgment of government up to God.


The third and final area supporting the work of Christ’s church. We sometimes think of our offerings as an obligation; just another bill we have to pay.  It would be better, however, for us not to think of this in terms of obligation, but privilege. It is a privilege to bring our offerings to be put to work in God’s kingdom because before and apart from anything we gave him, he gave us his Son, he forgave our sins and made us members of his kingdom. Sharing and supporting the proclamation of the Gospel is a privilege God gives only to believers (which, incidentally, is why we don’t ask outsiders to fund the work of the church). Paul offers simple guidelines for Christians as they plan their support of God’s kingdom: on the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income. (1 Corinthians 16:2) The four timeless truths for Christian giving are that: 1) it is each individual’s responsibility; 2) which are to be planned; 3) regular; and 4) proportionate to what you have. And if asked “How generous are we to be?” The answer: how generous has God been to you? Providing for our families, paying taxes, and bringing our first-fruits for the advancement of God’s kingdom are the three main areas in which God expects us to be faithful and wise managers of his property.


Did we miss anything in our study of this commandment? Our sinful nature thinks so: what about me? What about what I need, want, desire to have? God commands me to manage his property for the good of others, but who’s going to take care of #1? Isn’t that worry what drives our workaholism, our greed, our stinginess, our hoarding and piling up, our fixation on stock markets and nest eggs and economic prosperity? Isn’t that why giving our first and best back to God seems to demand an extreme act of will? At the heart of greed is selfishness and at the heart of selfishness is unbelief – doubt that God will provide. And the only cure for unbelief are the generous Gospel promises God gives us in his Word. We ask “what about the stuff I need?” God answers: do not worry, saying, ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33) We ask “what about my retirement and my children’s future?” God answers: be content with what you have, because God has said, “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) But really, the most important question we should be asking is: “What about the time and energy I have wasted on “stuff” that is here today and gone tomorrow; what about my selfish hands, my grumpy giving, my greedy heart? How will my infinite debt of sin be paid?” God answers that one too: you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus gave up the riches of heaven to sign his name next to our debt of sin. When we look at Calvary, we usually think there were only two criminals there. That’s not exactly accurate. We were there – because the law convicts us as thieves whether we taken with our hands or only our hearts. But the gospel reveals that Jesus was the greatest thief of all – he stole our sins, he robbed us of the punishment we deserved, he suffered the bankruptcy of hell in our place – and he replaced it all with his perfect generosity, his cheerful giving, his inheritance in heaven’s glory – and the promise that he will provide everything we need to get there. Who’s going to take care of you? Who’s looking out for #1? God did and God will. That’s a promise you can take to the bank.


So manage God’s property wisely during your short time on this earth. Watch out for greed – it’s a faith killer; manage the things God has given you according to his will; and, most importantly, guard your most precious treasure – the Savior who paid for all your sins against the 7th commandment, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood. Look to him and his cross and trust that no matter how much or how little you have now, God has promised and prepared for you an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you. (1 Peter 1:4) Amen.

Exodus 20:1-2, 14 - Honor God's Gift of Marriage - August 6, 2017

Let’s be honest: you’re at least a little worried that this is going to be an uncomfortable sermon, aren’t you? Why is that? Is it because we want to protect our children’s tender ears and eyes? The truth is that our kids are going to learn about sex (probably before we know it) – the only question is: will they learn about it at Jesus’ feet or in one of Satan’s many classrooms? Is it because sex is something that shouldn’t be discussed in public? The Apostle Paul clearly wasn’t ashamed to discuss this topic in his letters – which were intended to be read publicly. (1 Thessalonians 5:27) Is it because we want our sexual desires to be off-limits for anyone else to judge, something we want to keep hidden, not just from other people, but from God himself? Getting warmer. Do you know the real reason the 6th commandment makes us uncomfortable? At Creation: the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame. Seven verses later we are told then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. (Genesis 3:7) And, when God appeared, he said, “who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11) Why does it make us uncomfortable to talk about sex and marriage? Sin. The sinful thoughts that lurk in our minds and the sinful desires that control our bodies; the sin that has twisted our hearts and leads us to misuse God’s good gifts; sin – and the shame that comes with it – is why we try to run away and hide from our holy God. That’s why we need this commandment. That’s why even though it might make us squirm, we need to take an honest look at God’s will for sex and marriage – because like it or not, we are at war, and it’s time to take back territory from Satan and the ungodly world he controls. Today, God leads us to honor his gift of marriage; a gift that protects purity, promotes unity, and points to Christ.


The Hebrew word for adultery (naaph) appears 31 times in the Old Testament. It refers narrowly to unfaithfulness within marriage. And yet, while the definition of the word is very narrow, the Bible as a whole has a far broader definition. Paul goes so far as to say that among [Christians] there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality. (Ephesians 5:3) Simply stated, God’s will is that his gift of sex be practiced only within the bond of marriage – defined as one man and one woman who have publicly committed to one another for life. (Genesis 2:24)


These days, people – maybe even people you know – like to try to set Jesus against this commandment. They will say, “Yeah, I know that no one should separate what God has brought together (Matthew 19:6), but the passion is gone; doesn’t Jesus want me to be happy?” “Sure I know that God reserves sex for marriage, but doesn’t Jesus want me to show my love for my girlfriend/boyfriend?” “Yeah, I know that God expects that two people only begin living together after they have made their public vows to one another – but doesn’t Jesus want us to get to know each other before we make a permanent commitment?” Or “Yeah, in the past marriage was between a man and a woman, but come on, Jesus loves everyone, what’s wrong with two committed men or women getting married?” Perhaps more than in any other area of doctrine or life, many want to find some kind of contradiction between Jesus and the rest of Scripture. But listen again to Jesus’ words: You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28) Jesus does not stand against the 6th commandment; he stands behind it. He does not take the edge off of the law; he sharpens it. Many argue that Jesus doesn’t explicitly forbid living together before marriage or hook-ups between two consenting adults or homosexuality. But they miss the fact that Jesus didn’t have to explicitly name every way mankind could come up with to pervert God’s good gifts – because he zeroed in on the source of every sexual sin: the lust-filled heart.


Most people today do not consider lust a sin. Young people today are growing up in an oversexualized world, one where texting naked pictures is as common as making a phone call; where sex-ed is taught before driver’s ed; where even animated movies carry sexual overtones. Many parents don’t even question if their teenagers should be having sex, the biggest concern is how to teach them to have safe sex. As much as ever, Christian parents and grandparents need to be responsible for teaching their children about sex and marriage – and God’s guidelines for both – because every other teacher, be it in public schools, TV shows, or friends is not teaching from God’s instruction manual but Satan’s.


One of the best tools we have in doing that is Luther’s explanation to the 6th commandment: we should fear and love God that we lead a pure and decent life in words and actions. In other words, in this commandment God protects his gift of purity. This purity is not something we were born with – since we are all stained with sin from birth. (Psalm 51:5) This purity is something God gave us in Baptism. Paul explains do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders will inherit the kingdom of Godand that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) This is why Christians don’t go along with the crowd in their attempt to change the definition of marriage. This is why Christians avoid flirtatious conversations and dirty websites. This is why the most unloving thing you can do when your child tells you he’s moving in with his girlfriend is to say nothing. Jesus didn’t die to save us for the filth of sin, he died to save us from the filth of sin. In 1st Corinthians Paul explains that sexual sins (which the world calls harmless) not only damage our own bodies, they damage our relationship with God: flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Corinthians 6:18-20) Young or old, single or married, we will honor God with the way we use our bodies because it’s not my body to do with it whatever I please; Jesus died to buy us back from sin and Satan; we belong to him and this commandment protects the purity he has given us.



That’s one side of this commandment. Luther also leads us to consider the other side: Husbands and wives, love and honor each other. Here we return to the narrow definition of adultery, unfaithfulness inside of marriage. Scripture allows for divorce in two instances: When the bond of marriage has already been broken by 1) marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 19:9); or 2) malicious desertion (1 Corinthians 7:15). In those instances, the innocent party may seek a divorce. However, to seek a divorce for any other reason is a sin itself. (Matthew 19:1-12) Unwilling to fight against the sick desires of the sinful nature, our world has made a mess of things with its “no-fault” divorces and providing easy access to divorce in spite of the damage it does to families and especially children. But God is the great simplifier. He declares through the prophet Malachi: I hate divorce. (Malachi 2:16) Or, in the words of one Bible commentator: God gave you the ultimate wedding present when you stood before his altar and said “for as long as we both shall live”; he took you at your word. There is no such thing as a “no-fault” divorce in God’s eyes. Every divorce is the result of sin on the part of one or both spouses.


But even apart from divorce, this commandment calls all of us who are married to examine our own words, our actions, and our hearts. Our world tends to treat marriage more like a business arrangement than a sacred institution. And with the prevalence of prenuptial agreements and secular counselors who advise ending marriages rather than working through problems, it has taken hold even in Christian homes. But God was not forging a business contract when he pulled a rib out of Adam’s side, made Eve, and brought her to him. Adam recognized this in the first love song ever written: this is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man. (Genesis 2:23) The spouse God gave you is not a business partner – he or she is a part of you! Jesus affirms they are no longer two, but one. (Matthew 19:6) That’s what God sees when two people come before him and pledge to be faithful to one another as long as they both shall live. What do you see in your own heart and life? Husbands, Paul says, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. (Ephesians 5:25) Do we consider the needs and desires of our wives as more important than our own needs and desires? Are we willing to sacrifice our time, our career goals, our hobbies to give her the time and attention she needs? Or do we find ourselves tuning out and shutting down, which leads to coldness and lust, peering across real or virtual fences at greener pastures? Wives, what do you see? Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord…as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22, 24)  Do you find yourself resenting the unique role God has given you? Do you find yourself checking out old boyfriends on Facebook, fantasizing about what could have been? Whenever either of us, husbands or wives, follow the way of the world and demand our own personal happiness at the expense of our spouse – not only are we breaking this commandment, we are really hurting ourselves. The 6th commandment promotes the precious gift of unity that he gives only in marriage – a “one-flesh” unity that leads husbands to imitate Christ in his sacrificial love for the church which, in turn, leads wives to submit to his leadership and authority in everything.


And by now, I expect most of us are feeling torn inside. We know what God commands, but we also know how powerfully temptation pulls at us. We know that God instituted marriage to be a blessing, but we’ve also seen how sin has ruined God’s sacred institution. Part of us wants to live the way God intended from the beginning – but it’s perpetually at war with the part that says “It’s your body, if it feels good, go for it!” There’s a line in Luke’s Gospel about the response Jesus’ preaching received: all the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right. (Luke 7:29) That’s the primary aim of the 6th commandment. It’s not to prevent every teenage pregnancy or homosexual desire. It’s not to fix every problem in every marriage or reconcile every divorce. It’s not to bring up past guilt or provide a club for a future argument. The real aim of this commandment is repentance – a change of heart and mind that can be worked only by the One who loves us more than we love ourselves. When we stop arguing with God, when our hearts are softened enough to confess that God is right and we are wrong – then the 6th commandment has done its job. Because, finally, honoring marriage isn’t the end in itself. Honoring marriage is one important way we honor the God who overcame the separation our sins, sexual or otherwise, created to reconcile us to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Paul tells us that marriage is no less than a picture of what Jesus did when he came down to earth to live a perfectly pure life in our place and suffer the hell we deserve to reunite us with God. Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27)


From the water of Baptism to the dust of the grave, God has bound himself to you. He will never be unfaithful to you. He will never break his vow to forgive you and love you and take you back. So whatever irreparable mistakes lay in your past, whatever baggage you may carry, whatever struggles you face right now, know that the way of repentance is always open. The blood of Jesus is powerful enough to wash away any sexual sin – and the guilt and shame that come with it, and the Holy Spirit will renew your faith, enabling you to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives. (Titus 2:12) In all things, God’s forgiveness changes the source of the problem: our hearts – so that instead of looking for loopholes in God’s will, we will instead turn our eyes to the cross, where we discover what real love and real faithfulness look like. Joined to Christ as a bride is joined to a groom, we will honor marriage, because we know it as God’s good gift that protects purity, promotes unity, and points sinners everywhere to Christ. Amen.

Exodus 20:1-2, 13 - Love God's Gift of Life - July 30, 2017

We have reached the halfway point in our series on the 10 commandments; a good time to review why we are going through things that most of us learned in Sunday school and confirmation class. Why are we spending so much time on 10 commandments that are roughly 3500 years old? Because our three great spiritual enemies: the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature are hell-bent on warping and twisting and abolishing God’s Word and will. The devil still whispers in our ears did God really say? (Genesis 3:1) to lead us to doubt that God means what he says. The world tells us that the times have changed and therefore moral standards, the meaning of Scripture, the doctrine and practice of the church, and even the definition of words must change along with it. And our own sinful flesh, that part of us which will never be converted, will never want to obey God, will never believe in God, always tries to persuade us that God is just a bully who wants to take all the fun out of life – and that true freedom is found not in obedience but rebellion. The Christian life is one of constant struggle against these enemies and their lies – and that’s why we are taking the time to review and take to heart God’s unchanging, holy moral will. Today, we see God’s will as he revealed it in the 5th commandment: You shall not murder. In it, God leads us to love his gift of life, by teaching us the value of life, how to love life, and then how even the loveless receive life.


First, let us define the terms. You shall not murder in Hebrew is lo taratzach. This word is never used for the slaughter of animals, and “kill” (KJV) is too broad a translation. Narrowly defined, murder is the lawless taking of human life. It refers to premeditated murder – such as when Cain killed his brother Abel. (Genesis 4) It refers to murder that has a façade of legality or coincidence, such as when Ahab had Naboth murdered for his vineyard (1 Kings 21:19) or when David arranged for Uriah to be slain in battle. (2 Samuel 11) It even applies to killing that is the result of momentary passion or negligence. (Numbers 35:16-34) All are forbidden. However, not all taking of life is forbidden. Long before Moses stood on Mt. Sinai, God set down this basic principle when Noah stepped off the ark: whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. (Genesis 9:6) From the moment God pushed restart on creation with the Flood, he carved out an exception for his authorized representatives to take life. Soldiers, police officers, executioners, and people fighting back in self-defense are not guilty of murder if they take life in the course of carrying out their duties. They are God’s representatives, authorized by the 4th commandment to punish the wicked and protect the innocent.


The fact that God authorizes his representatives to take life only proves how serious God is about protecting life. Why? Why is life so valuable? Still speaking to Noah, God continued: whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Genesis 9:6) Life – every life – has value, for two basic reasons: 1) Man is created in God’s image, thus any attack on human life is an attack on God himself, and; 2) because a person’s life is the only time they have to come to receive God’s grace in faith and be saved. All life belongs to God and God gives life for one primary reason, as Paul spelled out: so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him. (Acts 17:27) In other words, your lifetime is the only time you get to come to know and believe in Jesus Christ and be saved. There are no “do-overs”, no second chances – after death there is only judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) God created life, God preserves life, God’s Son has redeemed our lives, and God wants all people to come to saving faith so that they may live with him eternally. That is why life is inherently valuable and why God forbids murder.


So, let’s put that principle to work. Let’s learn the “how-to” of loving life. Does this apply to unborn babies – which the world has taken to referring to as nothing more than a “clump of cells” or the unfortunate “by-product of conception”? [1] Yes. We sang in Psalm 139: your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (Psalm 139:16) What if the baby is the result of rape or incest, what if the baby is doomed to live with Down syndrome will be born into an unhealthy home-life? Did you hear any exceptions in the 5th commandment? All life comes from God, and no one has the right to dispute or deny or legislate to destroy that life. Abortion is murder. [2] Does this commandment apply to those with mental or physical handicaps, those whose life will only last a few, grief-filled years, those who will never have a “normal” life? Yes, the consequences of sin do not change the fact that God our Savior wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and does not nullify the fact that God can create saving faith in all people – even those the world considers to have a poor “quality of life.” God loves all people as his children regardless of skin color, education, ethnicity, or mental ability. Does this apply to those near the end of life, those with terminal diseases, those who are enduring awful, chronic pain? Do we have the right to end these lives and call it mercy-killing; euthanasia? No. God decides when life begins. God decides when life ends. Period. (Psalm 31:15) What if I don’t think my own life is worth living anymore – what if I am so ashamed, so guilty, so depressed, such an outcast that I would rather end my life than endure it? (If this describes you, please get help. Suicide is not a solution; it is sin. It hurts you. It hurts those around you. Don’t do it. Jesus offers help to everyone. Jesus offers hope in any situation.) Does this apply to illegal immigrants, Islamic terrorists, black lives and blue lives, or any other class of people you can come up with? Yes. The fifth commandment is clear: you shall not murder any one for any reason. Life, every life, has value because God created it and Jesus redeemed it.


Look down at your hands, are they stained with innocent blood? Maybe not, but remember what John wrote in our first lesson? Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. (1 John 3:15) God calls murderers not only those who take life with their hands, but those who take life with their lips or in their hearts. Children, have you ever hit or insulted your sibling or classmate? Parents, has your discipline ever crossed the line from love to frustrated rage? Husbands and wives, have you ever struck one another with a balled up fist or a deeply cutting word? Have you ever taken vengeance into your own hands? Are there any grudges lurking in your heart even as we speak? Hatred, angry outbursts, grudges – even if we never act out on them – are murder in God’s eyes. And no murderer has eternal life in him.

That’s the negative side. In his explanation, Luther also recognizes the positive side: we should fear and love God that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body but help and befriend him in every bodily need. Jesus zeroes in on the positive angle in his response to the expert in the law who asked him who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) I won’t retell that story, but consider a modern-day Good Samaritan story. Do you know the name Peter Enns? Peter Enns, of Alberta, Canada was a man who spent a lot of time on the road. For five years he worked for a company transporting campers from Indiana to Canada. In that time, he noticed that many people who break down on the side of the road don’t carry the necessary tools for repair. So Peter made it a habit of carrying extra tools and spare parts in his truck so he could help anyone in need. On the evening of July 8th, Peter Enns put his principle into practice on the side of I-94 near Delafield where the minivan of a family of six had broken down. As Peter was stopped on the side of the road helping this family another person entered the picture. This man’s name is Frank Schiller. Frank also had a history. He had been arrested and convicted of drunk driving not once, not twice, but five times. Frank also happened to be on I-94 that evening and according to the criminal complaint, he was again driving impaired. As he approached the Delafield area, he noticed that traffic was slowing as it neared the broken down minivan. So he decided to pass the slow-moving traffic on the shoulder – the same shoulder where Peter Enns was bent down changing a stranger’s tire. Witnesses estimate that Schiller was going 90 mph when he struck Peter Enns, killing him instantly. Another road in another time, a Good Samaritan, and a thoughtless individual who placed his own desires above the needs of others.


Both stories, the one Jesus told and the one lived by Peter Enns, answer the question: who is [our] neighbor? You see, like the expert in the law, we want to believe that our neighbors are going to be our family and friends, people who can return our kindness or at least people we can help in a way and at a time that’s convenient for us. We want to believe that clicking “like” on some noble Facebook cause satisfies God’s demand or we pass by on the other side when we think we’re too busy to be bothered or we insist on making sure someone is “worthy” of our help before we give it. Jesus’ answer to the expert and to those thoughts, to put it bluntly, is “Stop wondering who your neighbor is. Instead, look in the mirror and ask, what kind of neighbor have I been?” Peter Enns understood that. I failed to mention that Peter was a confessing Christian who used to say to family and friends “we can’t change the entire world, but we can change the part of it that we interact with. Let’s change it for the better.” [3] How do you love life? Not committing murder, not aborting unborn babies, not holding grudges and hating, yes. But loving life also means being ready to help anyone in need, regardless of who they are, whether it is convenient for you or not. One thing is clear: if you want to get to heaven by keeping this commandment, you must love everyone you interact with, with unfailing, self-sacrificing love every moment of every day. That’s the 5th commandment. There are no legal loopholes, no valid excuses, no circumstances that justify disobedience. In God’s courtroom, you and I are just as guilty of murder as Frank Schiller is.


It almost makes you wish that we didn’t review this commandment after all, doesn’t it? But actually, doesn’t sharpening our understanding of God’s will in the fifth commandment drive us back to that expert’s first question: what must I do to be saved? And so, it’s good for us to be here, convicted and guilty of murder before God. Because the good news is not that we now know who our neighbor is or suddenly feel energized to go and do likewise. The good news today is that the one who told this parable is the true Good Samaritan who has had mercy on us. Jesus loved the lives of murderers like Frank Schiller, like you, like me so much that he stooped down from heaven to be born and live among murderers like us. All through his ministry he proved his love for life – the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, those with diseases on their skin and demons in their hearts – all came to Jesus and Jesus helped them all – whether it was convenient for him or not – because he loved life. Even the dead did not stay dead when the Lord of life spoke his life-giving Word. Jesus loved God’s gift of life so much that he was willing to lay down his life for murderers like us. Isaiah wrote he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:12) The 5th commandment declares that we are murderers. From the cross, Jesus says “Nope, not anymore. I’ve taken your conviction and suffered your sentence.” Jesus has cleansed our bloody hands and bloody hearts with his precious blood. Jesus exchanged our rap-sheet for his perfect life of love. Jesus traded his death for our life. Jesus was buried as a criminal so that we could inherit his home in heaven. And because Jesus lives, you also will live even though you deserve to die! In Jesus there is life, true life, eternal life, even for loveless murderers like you and me.


Love God’s gift of life. Love it by seeing every human life as a precious soul created by God and redeemed by Christ. Love life not just by keeping your hands from violence but by keeping hate from your heart and by recognizing that your “neighbor” might be closer than you think. Most of all, love life by loving and trusting the one Good Samaritan who loved you enough to give up his own life. He’s the neighbor who showed us mercy when we didn’t deserve it and he is the true source of life now and forever. Amen.



[2] Nearly 60 million babies have been aborted in the US since 1973 -


Exodus 20:1-2, 8-11 - Guard the Rest God Has Given You - July 16, 2017

It’s no secret that Americans are among the hardest working people in the world. We pride ourselves on it. And not only do we work hard, we rarely stop to rest. The United States is the only developed nation that does not require employers to give paid vacations or paid holidays. [1] Of those who do get paid vacation, more than half of American workers (55%) do not use all of it. [2] For many, taking a day off is not an option. Some work overtime, others work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Americans are willing to work such long hours that in some industries, the government has had to step in with laws to ensure that people with occupations that are especially dangerous or demanding, don’t work more than is safe. For example, flight crews and truck drivers are limited to a certain number of hours they may be on duty in any 24 hour time period. It may frustrate you if your package is late or your flight is delayed because the driver or pilot was sleeping, but hey, better late than dead, right? The laws that govern work and rest in those industries are meant to save lives.


As we continue our series on the Ten Commandments, we’ll see that the third commandment functions much like a labor law. God said: remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. In this commandment God guards his gift of rest – he commands rest for our bodies so that he can give us rest for our souls.


With the third commandment, God is saying, in effect: “Don’t just do as I say, do as I did!” In six days, using only the toolbox of his Word, God fashioned planet earth, everything on it, and the universe in which it spins. (Note that this verse is a subtle rebuke to anyone who is tempted to compromise with evolution and allow that six days could mean “six periods of millions of years” – because God certainly did not intend the Israelites to work for six million years and then rest for one million!) God labored six days and rested on the seventh – thus sanctifying it, setting it apart. Now God wanted his people to do the same: work six days and rest on the seventh. Why was a day of rest so important that God enacted a law to protect it? In short, because God knew that the Israelites were people of little faith. What? What does rest have to do with faith? Well, why do we bust our butts from sun-up to sun-down 5, 6, 7 days a week? Why do we spend more time than necessary at work and then keep our phones on just in case more is needed? Why do we scrimp and save and strive for retirement under the assumption that no amount is ever enough? Isn’t it because we struggle, really struggle, to trust that God will keep his promise to provide for our daily needs? Isn’t it because we have a tendency to trust what we can do with our hands more than what God promises to do in his Word? We may call it the American work ethic, but at heart it’s doubt, it’s unbelief. Jesus rebuked his disciples for this kind of lack of trust in God when he told them do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)


With the third commandment, God was telling Israel: “Look, if I can create the universe in six normal days and keep it going generation after generation, I’m pretty sure I can provide you with everything you need for life on earth.” God proved this point to the Israelites when he gave them an extra helping of manna on Fridays so that they didn’t need to go out on Saturdays, the Sabbath Day, to collect any. (Exodus 16:5) As if that weren’t enough, Moses added another thought to this commandment when he repeated it just as the Israelites were about to enter into the Promised Land: remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15) Why did the Israelites even have the luxury of taking a day off of work? Only because God had rescued them from their slavery in Egypt. To ignore it was to say: “God, you might be able to create the universe, to crush Pharaoh’s army and part the Red Sea – but my dinner, my mortgage, my retirement – I’ve got to take care of that myself!” One man in Israel with this faithless attitude went out and gathered wood on the Sabbath day. The Lord had Moses and the Israelites stone him to death for his lack of faith. (Numbers 15:32-36) Why was God so serious about this commandment? Because the Sabbath was to serve as a weekly object lesson that his relationship with people never was and never could be based on anything they do. Instead, it was based solely on what he had done and would do for them. Every Sabbath was a silent sermon in which God was declaring: “Do nothing as a reminder that I made you, I will preserve you, and I will save you. Do nothing but trust my promises!”


But what does the Third Commandment have to do with us, NT Christians? Maybe you’ve noticed that we don’t rest – or even gather for worship – on Saturdays anymore. Should the church council line us up in the parking lot and throw stones at us? No. The New Testament makes it clear that we are no longer under the ceremonial part of God’s Law – the part that mandated when and how the Israelites were to worship. Paul wrote to the Colossians: therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)


And now we have the ultimate purpose behind the 3rd commandment, don’t we? The ultimate purpose was not just to give the Israelites a day of rest for their bodies; it was to give them time every week to ponder how their God would one day give them perfect rest, both for their bodies and their souls. That perfect rest would come through Christ. The other reason we work so hard and so long without rest – and without taking time to hear and read God’s Word – is not only that we lack faith that God will provide, it’s that deep down inside we can’t get rid of the notion that we must do something to earn God’s mercy, forgiveness or love – that somehow our eternity depends on what we do. At the end of each long, exhausting work day, part of me – and I’m guessing part of you – wants to be able to look at God and say: “Did you see that, God? Did you see how hard I worked, how diligent I was, how much I accomplished? Did you catch that God? Aren’t you pleased? Haven’t I earned your favor?”


While this commandment no longer mandates that we do nothing but worship on Saturdays, God still does use this commandment to guard the time we need to rest in his Word; the time we need to gladly hear and learn God’s two most important truths: 1) That if our eternity is based on our work – we are going to hear “You’re fired” – in more ways than one – on the Last Day. Why? Because our work is never good enough. We don’t give our employers the perfect respect they deserve, we are never honest or diligent enough, we never finish all our tasks and we do nothing flawlessly. Therefore, on the Sabbath day – whatever day we celebrate it – we hear the Law. It tells us that left to ourselves we would be damned to spend all eternity in the fires of hell – where there is no rest. (Revelation 14:11) A terrifying thought that drives us to repentance and leads us to the second truth: 2) that by God’s grace, our eternity does not depend on our work ethic or diligence, it depends completely on Jesus. Jesus, who worked in his human father’s shop during the week, but never, ever missed a service at the synagogue. (Luke 4:16) Jesus, who never doubted his Father’s loving care – perhaps most clearly evidenced by his sound sleep in a boat on the storm tossed Sea of Galilee. (Matthew 8:23-27) Jesus, whose work of sharing the Gospel was the most important job ever given – but who also took regular time to rest, to be alone with his Father in prayer. Jesus, whose life of perfectly balanced labor and rest covers our lives like a blanket. Jesus, who willingly undertook the back-breaking labor of carrying our sins to the cross, suffered the hellish punishment they deserved, declared once and for all that the hard work of salvation was completely and utterly finished – and then, bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30) Do you remember what Jesus did after that, on the Sabbath? He rested. And on the third day he rose again as proof and a pledge that God has prepared an eternal Sabbath rest for us in heaven – which, incidentally is why for centuries Christians have set aside Sunday for worship.


Guarding the time necessary to rest and consider all that our perfect Laborer did for us is what the writer to the Hebrews was driving at: there remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:9-11) Let us make every effort to enter that rest…did Martin Luther have that admonition in mind when he wrote his explanation to the Third Commandment? We should fear and love God that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but regard it as holy, and gladly hear and learn it. We can’t say for sure. But it certainly helps us understand why Luther would connect the Sabbath day with hearing God’s Word. It’s through the Word – and the Word alone, that we receive rest for our souls – because in the Word we are told repeatedly that because Jesus has done it all; there’s nothing left for us to do for salvation.


So should we rewrite the Third Commandment to read: “Be in church every week”? The truth is that you can come to church every Sunday and still be guilty of despising God’s Word. If we revert to viewing church attendance as primarily something we do for God, then we are again trying to earn God’s favor and worship will always be a burden. If we hear the Word of God but fail to put it into practice, James says that we are as foolish as a man who looks at his face in the mirror and then after walking away forgets what he looks like. (James 1:22-25) If we demand to have our egos pumped up or our ears tickled with the latest, greatest manmade doctrines, then we are despising the one thing that God promises will give true rest to our souls: his Word. In the end, this commandment is primarily aimed at our sinful nature, which will need to be beat over the head with the command to remember the Sabbath day until the day we die. Our new man on the other hand, craves every opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his Word for the new man knows and believes the Savior’s gracious invitation: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-29) God did not write the Third Commandment to burden us; he gave it to guard the precious rest he wants us to have now and eternally.


Although God meant for the Third Commandment to be a blessing to his Old Testament people, they rarely kept it. When they did, it was often only out of a sense of duty. It’s easy for us to fall into that same trap and imagine that we’re too busy accomplishing the important tasks of life to take the time to listen to and meditate on God’s Word. But what we’re really saying is that we’re too busy to rest in God’s grace and love. Slow down. Take a break. Open your Bible. Not just because it gives your body a bit of the rest it needs – let’s not kid ourselves, 60 minutes isn’t going to do the trick; but because the forgiveness of sins, peace, and promise of eternal life Jesus dispenses here gives your soul the rest it so desperately needs. Amen.




Exodus 20:1-2, 7 - You Shall Not Misuse the Name of the Lord Your God - July 9, 2017

Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of running into someone so unbelievably rude that they had the guts, the nerve, the audacity to mispronounce your name? I’m sure we all have. And, while we can probably shrug that off pretty easily, it’s a different story when someone misuses your name. When someone slanders your name or says you did something you didn’t or calls you a liar or a cheat or unfriendly or boring or lazy – that can quickly make your blood boil. But consider this: sometimes, those descriptions are accurate. I have lied, been lazy, unfriendly, boring (you may think so right now), and foolish – and you have been too. We may get angry when people slander our reputations, but if we’re honest, we must admit that at least sometimes, they’re right. Contrast that with God – whose very essence is holiness, wisdom and love; who never has done and never can do anything wrong or evil. How should God feel when people slander and abuse and misuse his name? That’s what the 2nd commandment is all about. You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; God’s name is sacred, because God’s name saves.


First, we have to define what God’s name is. Sometimes we think of God’s name as no more than labels or titles. In fact, I bet many of us as children believed that Christ was Jesus’ last name. But God’s names are more than simply labels, they are the way God reveals himself to us, shows us his will and love – who, on our own would never be able to fathom or imagine the one, true God. For example, when God calls himself almighty (Genesis 17:1) he’s telling us that he can do anything. I AM (Exodus 3:14) reveals that God is timeless and changeless. Christ (Luke 4:18) is not Jesus’ last name, it describes his office, it tells us what he came to do, that he was anointed as our substitute to live and die for us. If we were to list all of the names God uses to reveal himself to us, I would need more than two pages for this sermon. And if we were to take the time to explain what each of them means, we would need a book as big as…well, the Bible. In fact, the Bible is the best definition of God’s name. The Bible is God’s name because the Bible is where God reveals himself, his heart, his reputation, and his work to us. If this were confirmation class, I would say that reading the Bible is like browsing God’s Facebook page. But’s there’s one big difference. Unlike most Facebook pages, which are designed to bring popularity and praise to the user, God has revealed his name and reputation and work to us in the Bible, not for his good, but for ours. God told Moses shortly after giving him the Ten Commandments: wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you. (Exodus 20:24b) God gives us his name to bless and save us – which is why he’s so serious about protecting it and making sure that we don’t misuse it.


So how is God’s name misused? Luther explains: we should fear and love God that we do not use his name to curse, swear, lie or deceive or use witchcraft. (SC 1)


1) Cursing. Cursing means to ask God to damn someone or something to hell. Immediately, we might think, yes, we should never do this. But there are times when cursing is proper. Jesus himself says that whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) Every time the law is preached faithfully, it will declare that those who disobey will be damned. But God alone sets the standard for damnation, we don’t ever have that right. So when we smash our thumb with a hammer and shout “God damn it”, or worse, shout the same at a driver who cuts us off – asking God to send that hammer and that driver to hell – that is a reckless misuse of God’s name. A sin against the 2nd Commandment.


2) Swearing. Swearing means calling upon God as our witness. Once again, swearing is fitting when we call upon God to witness our confirmation or marriage vows or that we are telling the truth in court. But to swear to God that the pizza we had last night is the best pizza in the world is a sin that earns us God’s wrath. James writes: above all, my brothers, do not swear…let your “yes” be yes, and your “no,” no, or you will be condemned. (James 5:12)


3) To lie. (General lying is covered under the 8th commandment.) But to use God’s name to lie means to use God’s name to cover up false doctrine – to say “God said!” when God hasn’t said it. This could be a sermon by itself. You’ve heard people say that God hates the sin not the sinner? That’s a lie, see Psalm 5. You’ve heard people say that God promises wealth, health, prosperity and happiness to true believers? More lies, look at the life of Job, or even Jesus. Maybe you’ve heard pastors or churches create rules and traditions that God has not given? You heard Jesus’ response in Matthew 15: Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men. (Matthew 15:6, 9) We’re not simply being petty when we insist on pure doctrine. Every false doctrine is an assault on God’s name – the only name that can save sinners.


4) To deceive. Jesus exposed this sin when he said to the Pharisees in our Gospel lesson: you hypocrites! Isaiah was write when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:7) Do we show up on Sunday because we think it sanctifies six days of godless living? Do we confess our sins fully planning on going right back to the same old sins? That’s deceiving by God’s name – and even though we may be able to fool the people around us, the warning stands: God cannot be mocked. (Galatians 6:7)


5) Witchcraft. This word may seem to us like a throwback to the dark ages or third world countries; a word we link to ignorance or incivility. But the Bible teaches that dark powers are real. Much of today’s entertainment – movies, books, video and board games – have superstitious and Satanic undercurrents. Even seemingly harmless superhero movies can lead the immature, and especially children, to trust in powers other than God for help and guidance. One thing is certain, Satan will stop at nothing to gain control of our hearts and minds. And if our eyes and ears and hearts and minds are not filled with God’s truth, Satan will find a way to fill that vacuum with his empty lies and deceits.


Luther was especially masterful though, in how he saw not only a negative side to the 2nd commandment, but also a positive side - how we should use it, how we can keep it sacred. He writes that we should call upon God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and gives thanks. (Pop quiz: law or gospel? Do = law.) And so, even though this is the positive side of the 2nd commandment, it may just be the way we, as Christians, break it most often. That statement demands proof, doesn’t it? Well, the last time your car broke down or the doctor’s test was positive or you found yourself struggling to pay the bills, what did you do? If you didn’t call upon God first, you broke this commandment. Or, take the Lord’s Prayer. How many times has your mind been on the weather or lunch or the person sitting in front of you as you thoughtlessly mumble “Our Father, who art in heaven…”? How often have we given the credit for the good things that happen in our lives to a lucky break or our own hard work rather than God? How many shopping trips have ended without a prayer of thanks to our One who gave us the means to provide for ourselves?


In dealing with sins against both the positive and negative aspects of the 2nd commandment, there’s a great danger for us to think that breaking this commandment isn’t as bad as committing murder or adultery. Satan and our world tempt us to think: “What’s the big deal? It’s just a name. Doctrine? That’s just words. Deeds are more important than creeds anyway.” Does God care if our mind wanders a little as we are speaking to him in prayer? Does God care if we use his name as an exclamation point or as a way to express our outrage? Does God really care if preachers and teachers take a religious liberty with his Word – after all it seems like more people would come to our church if pastor would talk a little less about sin and hell and the cross and a little more about wealth and health and prosperity? Does God take his name seriously or is it just a polite request – like one of us correcting someone’s pronunciation of our name? Think about how quickly your blood boils when someone slanders your reputation – see how firmly Jesus rebukes the false teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-9) or see how the Holy Spirit struck Ananias and Sapphira dead on the spot when they used God’s name to cover up their deceptive hearts (Acts 5:1-11) – and you get some idea of how God feels about the misuse of his name. God doesn’t just threaten to punish those who misuse his name; he promises it: the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. All of which proves that under the unyielding demands of the 2nd commandment we are worse than just lazy, unfriendly, fools – we are lawless sinners who deserve to be damned for our misuse of God’s name and failure to use it properly.


But – here’s the good news – the same God who gave us this commandment also sent his Son to keep it. When we think of what Jesus did to save us from our sins, we usually think of his suffering and death on the cross; his passive obedience. Just as important, however, is Jesus’ active obedience, his active keeping of God’s law. Whenever the guilt of misusing or not using or abusing God’s Name and God’s Word creeps into your heart, take some time to read through the Gospels to see how Jesus used God’s name – and do it remembering that he is the Christ, the one anointed to be your substitute. When Jesus was tired or stressed or oppressed, he didn’t vent his anger or call down curses – he poured out his heart to his Father in prayer (no fewer than 25 times). Whether Jesus sat down for a meal with 5000 people or to eat his last supper with his disciples, he never failed to thank God for his food. And, when Jesus was bowed and bleeding on the cross he cried out my God, my God have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) not as a curse, but as a plea for help and relief. Only, for him, no help came because God decided to punish Jesus for all of our sins against the 2nd Commandment. And then, at the very end, he entrusted his soul to his heavenly Father – with unwavering trust that God’s will was best – even though God’s will was for him to die. God gave us his 2nd commandment not just to condemn us and lead us to repentance, but to point us to Jesus, who not only paid the penalty for our sins, but also prayed and worshiped and spoke in perfect obedience to this commandment. Jesus took the ugly name we had earned with our lips: damned sinners – and made it his own; so that the blessed name he had earned from his Father’s lips: beloved children of God – could be ours. And the only way you or I or anyone could ever know this good news is because God has chosen to reveal it to us in the pages of Scripture – can there be any better reason for us to want to keep his name, his reputation, and his Word sacred?


You astute students of Scripture know that we haven’t exhausted the explanation of the 2nd Commandment. But I pray you do see what a great blessing it is that God has given us his name – and uses this commandment to protect it. Don’t misuse God’s name – but don’t fail to use it either. Call upon him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Keep God’s name sacred, because by it you are saved. Amen.


Exodus 20:1-5a - You Shall Have No Other Gods - July 2, 2017

Independence Day calls to mind the many blessings we have as Americans. Maybe the most cherished of which is freedom. We are free to speak our minds, free to gather, free to worship, free to decide where to go to school, where to live, whom to marry, free to bear arms etc. Freedom from the tyranny of the British king and his taxation without representation was what our founding fathers fought and died for. But our forefathers were wise enough to realize something else in their fight for independence – that freedom cannot exist all alone. Freedom can only exist in a place where there are laws and authorities in place to protect that freedom. So that, while the Declaration of Independence declared freedom from British rule – the Constitution, with its principles, establishment of government, provisions for laws and law enforcement protects and preserves those freedoms. Human nature – because it is infected with sin – will always ruin absolute freedom, so that freedom must be limited by law. As we study the Ten Commandments, we will see that the same is true in the spiritual realm. Our sinful nature prohibits absolute freedom because by nature we are totally self-centered, hostile to God and one another. Which is why even though God wants us to see that obedience to his commands is the path of freedom in life (James 1:25), it doesn’t always feel that way because they restrict and curb our sinful human desires. We see that in the 1st commandment where God protects his crown and by doing so, protects our crown of salvation.  


And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Why is this commandment necessary? Why should God – who bought Israel with the blood of thousands of lambs and bought the world with the blood of the Lamb – have to give this command? Who would be so bold as to challenge God’s claim to the crown – after he had destroyed the world in a flood, shredded Egypt’s land and people with the plagues, parted the waters of the Red Sea with a word, and descended on Mt. Sinai in lightning and thunder? The entire ancient world, for one. Polytheism – the worship of many gods – was not the exception but the rule in Moses’ day. Israel’s Egyptian overlords worshipped no fewer than 40 different gods, gods fashioned in the image of man and beast and sometimes combinations of both. There were sun gods and moon gods, gods that looked like crocodiles and cats, gods who allegedly controlled the wind and the Nile and fertility. Polytheism continued to flourish under the influence of the Greeks and Romans in the days of the NT. The gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans were strikingly similar to the rich and famous of today – they were larger than life, but with very human flaws and weaknesses. Paul warned the Corinthians that all of these gods and goddesses were nothing less than demonic creations of men. (1 Corinthians 10:18-22)


Nor is polytheism a relic of history. As always, some of these idols are right out in the open. Hinduism with its numerous gods and goddesses, the mystic spiritualism of native tribes that deify nature, ancestors and animals, Mormonism and the Eastern religions which teach that we can all become gods are modern forms of polytheistic idolatry. But some idolatries are hidden and therefore, more seductive, even for Christians. Lodges, like the Masons and organizations like the Boy Scouts – demand allegiance to a nameless, faceless, moralistic deity – which is why membership in those organizations is incompatible with the Christian faith. Sadly, in many American churches the God and Christ proclaimed is whoever you want him to be. So that if you want a female, social justice warrior, tree-hugging, gay-approving, morally relativistic, hip Jesus who only wants you to be happy – you can have it your way. And there are still others that are so engrained into society that we might not even notice them. Secular schools are filled with disciples who study at the feet of the gods of Reason and Science. The business world bows down to Money. Social media has elevated Popularity and Peer Approval to divine status. And millions of people regularly present huge offerings of time, effort and energy on the altar of Sports.


In a society filled with false gods; in a religious atmosphere that fosters Burger King’s concept of god (the have it your way god) we, who have just confessed the Bible’s truth in the words of the Nicene Creed, know better. We know that you shall have no other gods means exactly what it says. God claims a monopoly on our hearts – not only as number one, but as the only one. To fear, love, and trust any other god or any other thing on heaven or earth is idolatry punishable with death and hell. Anyone who claims otherwise is not a Christian and will not be saved. Period. We’re comfortable with that little Catechism lesson, aren’t we? If our presence in God’s house is evidence that faith in the true God is beating in our hearts – then the first commandment sounds to us like a call to arms, summoning us to stand firm against the waves of false gods that are crashing onto the modern cultural landscape.


But then there is the uncomfortable reminder from Paul that the law is spiritual (Romans 7:14). The first commandment not only forbids us to have a Hindu shrine in a spare bedroom and shows us why the Boy Scouts is an idolatrous organization – it forbids us to rob God of the fear, love, and trust that rightfully belong to him. Luther’s definition takes aim at the central issue: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God. [1] In other words, the heart of the matter is the heart. We can confess the Nicene Creed with our lips, but if we aren’t looking to the God described there both for every good thing and in every time of trouble we are just as guilty of idolatry as the atheist or the Muslim. God puts up with an awful lot in the hearts of his creatures – but second place is not one of them.


That’s what Jesus taught the rich young man today, wasn’t it? By showing him that because he was unwilling to give up his wealth he hadn’t even kept the 1st commandment, Jesus shattered that young man’s smug self-confidence. But Jesus’ lesson was broader than just a warning against idolizing wealth. The disciples – not always noted for being quick to catch on – actually caught on for once. When Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24) the disciples – who were not rich by any means – threw up their hands and said who then can be saved? (Matthew 19:25) In exposing the rich man’s sin, he had exposed the disciples’ as well. They realized they were still trusting something other than God for salvation and so they were ashamed, shocked, guilty, convicted – and so they repented. Does this lesson bring us to repentance, or have we constructed walls in our hearts, no-trespassing zones where we don’t want God or his spokesmen to go; certain things that we don’t want to be exposed or discussed? Whatever it is – money, sexual desires, ambition, popularity, convenience, priorities, drinking habits, the church of the holy mattress on Sunday mornings, siding with family and friends when they live in defiance of God’s Word, how we raise our kids or spend our time, science or reason or beauty or pleasure – whatever it is – if we do not submit any of these things to God’s command and direction, if we are unwilling to abandon them for God’s sake, then they have become the gods of our hearts and lives. The 1st commandment still thunders: you shall have no other gods!


Why is idolatry – whether its out in the open or hidden in our hearts – so foolish and dangerous? Because the nature of idolatry is to lead us away from God and lead us to hell. Isaiah painted the idols Israel – and we worship – as they truly are. He pictured them as helpless and worthless – gods that have to be carried on carts like a child pulling a teddy-bear in a wagon; gods that had to be nailed down so they don’t fall over; gods that you pull out of your wallet and then bow down to worship. (Isaiah 44-46) And not only are idols empty and lifeless – they are unrelenting slave masters. They demand more of us than we can give. They are deaf to our cries for help. They promise us peace and happiness but never follow through. When death comes, they leave us to rot.


Who then can be saved? With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26) For the people of Israel, the people of Isaiah’s day, for Jesus’ first disciples and for us, it’s an unparalleled comfort to know that the true God doesn’t need to be carried – that instead he’s the one who carries us. He carries us even when our bones creak and our hair grays and our lives fall apart, he helps us when all other helpers fail. The true God is the only God who is not a burden to believe in or follow because he’s the God who bears our burdens for us – to the point of sending his own Son to bear the burden of our sins against this and every commandment on the cross.


So the voice that thunders from Mt. Sinai you shall have no other gods, is not only protecting his crown with this commandment, he’s protecting our crown of salvation. His demand that we never allow wealth or wisdom or pleasure take his throne in our hearts is not motivated by a petty sense of pride – as if the Creator and Judge of the universe is worried about losing his job. No, you shall have no other gods because there is no other God; no other God who really is looking out for your best interest, no other God who gave himself to us before inviting us to give ourselves to him, no other God who loved you before you were born, no other God who will always answer when you call for help, no other God who promised salvation for sinners and then became a man, lived a perfectly obedient life in your place, suffered and died on a cross to get it done. You can look far and wide and you will never find a God who has done all that for you – except here, in the Bible, in Christ and his cross. Protect God’s crown, his rule in your heart – because you know and believe that the One who gives this command has given everything to win and protect the crown of your salvation.


While the 4th of July is a great opportunity for us to give thanks for the many freedoms we have and cherish – maybe this year we can give thanks for the constitution, the laws, the authorities that protect and preserve those freedoms. More importantly, today, let us hear and heed God’s first and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods, because we recognize that the One who demands that we submit everyone and everything in our hearts and lives to his crown has already sacrificed his one and only Son to win and protect the crown of our salvation. This God, and this God alone, is worthy of our fear, love, and trust because there is no other God and there is no other Savior. Amen.


[1] LC p 18

Numbers 6:22-27 - God's Blessing Leaves You Lacking Nothing - June 11, 2017

Think about the occasions in life when you speak and you must – more than usual – mean what you say. When you were confirmed, you vowed before God and man to “reject the devil along with all his lies and empty promises” and “to continue steadfast in this teaching and to endure all things, even death, rather than fall away from it.” If you are married, you again stood before God and man and promised “to be faithful [to your spouse] as long as [you] both shall live.” If you’ve been asked to testify in court, you swore to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” There are certain moments in life when we want everyone to know that we mean what we are saying. There’s a problem though. Whenever we, as sinful humans, make a promise or take an oath or swear to tell the truth, whenever we speak – there’s always something lacking. Raise your hand if you’ve never doubted or wavered in your faith since you vowed to endure all things for the sake of Christ. Raise your hand if you’ve never been unfaithful to your spouse in thought, word or deed. Raise your hand if you believe you can ever really know the WHOLE truth. No matter how sincere we are when we speak, we are always lacking; lacking steadfastness, commitment, knowledge or information or will or ability. In the end, our words are always lacking because we are weak, sinful human beings. But today we will see that when God speaks, he always has the power to do what he says. And when God gives you his blessing, he leaves you lacking nothing.  


I.                    The Father’s Providence


The words before us this morning are very familiar. In the course of the church year, you will hear these words dozens of times; with the result many of you have heard them hundreds of times, and a few of you have heard them thousands of times. There’s a danger in this familiarity though, isn’t there? The danger is that we might start to believe that these are just words; just words that mark the end of church; just words to make us feel good as we leave God’s house. The law for today is this: if you have ever taken these words for granted or have found your mind wandering as these words are spoken or have left with this blessing but then allowed the worries and distractions of life cause you to forget them: repent. Repent for treating the blessing of the triune God as nothing more than words. Repent for failing to recognize that these words are God’s promise to you, his guarantee, his contract that he signs with his own name. Repent and be forgiven so that you may always treasure the incredible gift God gives you as you leave his house.


God first gave these words to Moses and Aaron around 1500 BC as Israel was preparing to set out from Mt. Sinai for the Promised Land. At God’s command, Aaron and his sons were to speak this blessing over Israel every morning and every evening. For more than 3500 years God’s servants have placed his name on his children by repeating these words. Even though I have spoken these words countless times, I noticed something for the first time as I was studying them this past week. This blessing alludes to and spells out the work of each person of the Trinity. Not just in the threefold repetition of the name LORD, but in the unique and specific blessings each part contains. The Israelites would not have seen this clearly, they were still looking forward to the full revelation of God in the person of the Messiah – but as NT Christians who have the full revelation of God in Jesus, we can see clearly how this blessing is a shadow of what God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have each done for our salvation.  


The LORD bless you and keep you. In the OT the word “bless” means to endow – to actually give – someone something. It’s more than a good intention; it’s God the Father’s good intention in action. We see an example of this in Genesis 1:28 where God blessed [Adam and Eve] and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and birds of the air and over every living creature.” God blessed them – and what happened? They were fruitful – today their descendants cover the earth. They ruled over creation – and today we have more food than we can eat. The point is this. When God speaks, it’s not just a pious wish. His Word carries the power to do what he says. Maybe this is more striking when you consider the opposite: God’s curse. In Genesis 3, God cursed the ground – and even now our gardens are filled with thorns and thistles. (Genesis 3:17-19) In Genesis 19, God cursed Sodom and Gomorrah and to this day all that remains of them is scorched earth. (Genesis 19) When God speaks, things happen. When God promises to bless you, he is promising to provide everything you need for life – your talents, your abilities, your health, your home and job and family are the result of this blessing. But the Father doesn’t only provide for you, he also protects you. His promise to keep you means that he will watch over you every day of your life. Everything you are and have, your past, present, and future are in your Father’s hands – and he promises to use every moment of it – the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, life and death – for your eternal good. (Romans 8:28) God’s blessing leaves you lacking nothing and the Father’s special work is that he will provide for you and protect you. We call this his loving, undeserved Providence. Let us thank the Father for his provision and protection by confessing our faith…


II.                  The Son’s Grace


I’m willing to bet that among the many pieces of mail you receive every week are at least a few requests for a donation of time or money. When you receive that request, see that there are people in need and decide to help them – that’s called charity. That thought of helping someone in need comes out in part two of the Aaronic blessing. The LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The first question is: what is God’s face? This is called an anthropomorphism – that is, giving God – who is spirit (John 4:24) – a human attribute. When you turn your face toward someone or something, you are giving it your attention. And that’s the point here. Even though our sins have separated us from God and prevent us from coming into his presence (Isaiah 59:2) he turns his attention to us. His gracious attention. When you hear the word grace you think: undeserved love. But the Hebrew uses a different word meaning “to grant a favor” or “help someone in need” [1] - much like you do when you send a gift to a charity.

How did the LORD most clearly demonstrate that we have his attention and help in our need? Here’s one place the classic Sunday school answer – Jesus – is the right answer. We needed something and he provided it. We needed the forgiveness of sins; we needed someone to save us from the fire of hell; we needed a perfect life to cover our own imperfect lives. We needed help, and Jesus was the only one who could give us what we need. When the virgin Mary conceived and gave birth to a baby boy that night long ago in Bethlehem (Luke 2:6-7), God made his face shine on the world. And as that baby boy grew and learned and taught and healed and lived and loved – all in perfect obedience to his Father’s will, Jesus was weaving together the robe of perfect righteousness that covers all our unrighteousness. And when that grown man climbed Calvary and surrendered himself to the worst punishment that God and man could dish out, we see how the Son of God paid the price for our sins with his blood. We were in need, we are still in need, and so as we leave God’s house the Son assures us that he came and lived and died and rose again as proof that God’s attention and favor are ours.


Too often when people think about receiving blessings from God they are only thinking of earthly, material blessings – our prayers tend to focus on 1st Article blessings. But when you set the first two parts of this blessing side-by-side, an interesting thing happens: you realize that the Father’s material blessings would be worthless apart from the spiritual blessings Jesus won for us. A steady income is a wonderful blessing, but no amount of work can earn the righteousness God demands from us. But Jesus can. Jesus provided for our lack of righteousness by living a flawless life under God’s law as our substitute. A roof over our heads is a wonderful blessing; but it cannot shelter us from God’s wrath over our sin. But Jesus can. Because Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath his blood shelters us from God’s judgment. It’s certainly a blessing to live in a country where we can speak and worship freely, but neither the constitution nor the military can free us from death’s prison. But Jesus can. Jesus robbed death of its sting when he burst out of his three-day prison and rose from the dead. When God blesses you, he leaves you lacking nothing; and the unique work of the Son is to give you grace – his undeserved love and attention that frees us from the eternal consequences of our sin. Let us thank him for his grace by confessing our faith…


III.               The Spirit’s Peace


You know how whenever there’s a terror attack or a natural disaster or a political scandal, people always react with shock and surprise – as if these things never happen in our world? It’s almost as if people assume that peace is the normal status quo in this world. You don’t have to be a student of history to recognize that this is not the case. Peace is not the norm, war, unrest, violence, terror is. If we have peace in our world and in our personal lives, we should never take it for granted, because it is a rare and precious gift.


Given the way many people glide through life without ever giving a thought to God or repentance or forgiveness or judgment or eternity – you might get the impression that we are simply born into a peaceful relationship with God. In the balance, this is a far more dangerous misunderstanding. Peace is not our natural relationship to God; by nature we are God’s enemies who are in open rebellion against him and his Word. (Romans 8:7-8) That’s why it’s so important to appreciate that in the last part of his blessing, God promises us the opposite of what we have earned and deserve; he promises us peace. The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace. Our world has a twisted understanding of peace. To the world, peace is having enough money in the bank to pay the bills; peace is having a family that always gets along; peace is absence of crime and war; peace is looking on the outside the way you feel inside. The dirty little secret is that you can have all those things – and still not have peace. True peace, the peace that Jesus died to win for you is the peace of forgiveness, the peace of a clean conscience and a heart free from guilt, the peace of knowing that this screwed up planet is not your real home – true peace is peace with God.


Jesus created true peace between you and God once and for all when he took the guilt of your sins away by his death, but the Holy Spirit is the delivery man. He first delivered this peace to you when you were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. On that day, the Holy Spirit converted you from God’s enemy into God’s child. As Paul writes in Galatians: you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. If you belong to Christ, then you are…heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29) But the Holy Spirit’s work didn’t end there at the baptismal font. Daily and weekly the Spirit delivers God’s peace to you – in the words of absolution, in the body and blood of Jesus you receive in the Sacrament, in your own personal mediation on the Word of God – wherever and whenever the message of forgiveness in Christ is taught or offered or read, the Holy Spirit is delivering God’s peace to your heart – even and especially when your life is anything but peaceful. God’s blessing leaves you lacking nothing; and the Spirit’s special work is to deliver true peace; God’s peace, the peace Jesus earned, to you through simple human servants and the simple means of grace – the Gospel in Word and sacrament.


How can we respond to our God’s blessing of providence, grace, and peace? Before we close with Luther’s explanation of the third article I want you to take something to heart. While today we take the time to repeat back to God exactly what God has promised us, most Sundays we respond by simply saying or singing “amen,” a Hebrew word meaning “Yes, it shall be so.” Every Sunday, and every day for that matter, God promises to give you everything, leaving you lacking nothing, and what does he want in return? Only faith that believes and receives his promises. So whenever you hear this blessing, trust that God will provide anything and everything you need, so that you can sing and speak and live with the conviction that: “Yes, it shall be so.” Amen.


[1] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, p 302