Malachi 3:1-4 - Peace Requires Preparation - December 9, 2018

Imagine you went to bed tonight and when you woke up, it was suddenly Christmas Day. Would you be ready? Are the gifts bought and wrapped, the cookies baked, the decorations perfectly arranged, the house cleaned, the bags packed, the car gassed and ready? If Christmas was tomorrow would you continue to sit there calm and quiet – at peace – or would you break out in a cold sweat and start tapping your foot anxiously, praying for this sermon to end? I doubt if any of us are completely ready for Christmas just yet. We need time to prepare, and we hope that if we are well-prepared, we will have a measure of peace when that day comes. The fact that Jesus came 2000 years ago in humility is proof that he will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. This morning, Malachi asks a chilling question: who can endure the day of his coming? The answer, of course, is: only the one who is prepared. For the one who is prepared, even if it is tomorrow, it will be a day of peace. The question we must ask, then, is how do we prepare?


Malachi lived and worked about 100 years after God had brought his people back from exile in Babylon. Upon their return there was something of a spiritual revival. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord. They enthusiastically celebrated the feasts and festivals and joyfully brought their offerings and sacrifices. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm was short-lived. Soon enough spiritual apathy and indifference returned. They brought blind and lame animals to be sacrificed instead of the flawless specimens God demanded. (Malachi 1) They began to intermarry with the godless nations around them and thought nothing of using divorce and violence, lies and fraud to settle their personal issues. (Malachi 2 & 3) To make matters worse, instead of exposing and rebuking this wickedness, the priests encouraged and supported it. To top it off, when the people observed their culture spiraling toward destruction, they pointed the finger of blame at their Lord: where is the God of justice? (Malachi 2:17) Malachi’s response is, essentially: “Oh, don’t you worry, he’s coming and you will meet him, face to face. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”


And Jesus did come. He came in a manger to bring salvation. And he’s coming again, this time to bring judgment. Are we ready? Are we at peace? The reality is that spiritual apathy and indifference is just as prevalent in 2018 as it was in 400 BC. We see evidence of spiritual apathy when we prioritize Christmas decorations and gifts over preparing our hearts with Word and Sacrament, when we present our offerings to God as if it is a chore and a burden rather than a joy and a privilege, when we use and abuse our spouses rather than cherish and treasure them as gifts from heaven. Apathy can be heard when we gripe about the obvious lovelessness and immorality in the world around us, and pretend as if those same sins don’t show up in our hearts and lives, and in the fact that even though God chose us in Baptism, guides us in his Word strengthens us with his Sacrament and gives us eternal life – we demand more, tangible, material evidence of his love – we demand he give us this earth too. We teach spiritual apathy to our children when we drop them off for Sunday school and then leave – as if learning the truths of Scripture is only for children.


Jesus is coming, the fire of his judgment will expose any and all apathy and indifference in your heart and mine: who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? Who of us could say we’re ready? What would you expect his response to be? “Tough, you knew I was coming, you know that I demand perfection not just your best effort, you had plenty of time to prepare – if you’re not ready, then get out of my sight and join the weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.” That would only be fair. Thank the Lord that he is not fair. Instead of judgment, he promises to send a messenger – actually two – to prepare us: see, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.


The first is a clear reference to John the Baptist. (see Matthew 11:7-15; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 7:24-28) God sent him to prepare the hearts of Israel by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) John’s work and message are representative of the work of every single prophet, apostle, pastor and teacher God has ever sent. John preached undiluted law and unconditional Gospel. He called on everyone – from corrupt tax collectors and soldiers to outwardly pious religious leaders (Luke 3:7-15) – to repent – because he understood that it didn’t matter whether a person was wearing prison orange, their Sunday best, or a pastor’s gown – in God’s eyes we are filthy and unclean. (Isaiah 64:6) And then, he baptized all those who repented, announcing that their sins had been forgiven, fully and freely for the sake of Christ – no matter who they were or what they had done. John’s work then is every pastor’s work today: to proclaim Law and Gospel, repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all people.


The second stage cannot be carried out by any man, but only by one who is both God and man, the Lord you are seeking, Jesus Christ himself. He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. I don’t think we mind throwing a load of clothes into the washer, but imagine being the clothing! That’s the picture: Jesus is the launderer – we are the clothing; he is the refiner – we are the silver. You don’t have to work in a laundromat or refinery to see that this stage of preparation is much more comprehensive, much more personal, and much more painful than a simple confession and absolution in church. Whether it’s self-righteousness, pride, an unhealthy attachment to this world, our trust in ourselves, our strength, our good works, despair or doubt or unbelief or apathy or indifference – it all needs to be removed if we are going to be ready to receive Jesus with peace rather than terror when he returns. Since this involves the death of the sinful nature that lives within all of us, this purifying is a painful, lifelong process. Jesus may use the soap of disappointment or disease or job loss to remind us just how weak and helpless we really are – and how much we need to rely on him. He may use the fire of tragedy or disaster or death to burn out of our lives things and people we love – but which stand in the way of faith. Over the course of a lifetime he may use the general misery of life in this world to convince us that this world is not going to get any better so that we long for our perfect home in heaven.



This may not seem like good news, it may not seem like a message of peace, but it is. It is proof of his love for us. Think of how a loving parent disciplines their child – bringing them short term pain for their long-term gain. Your Lord loves you too much to let you face Judgment unprepared. So he sends messengers like John to preach Law and Gospel, and he works behind the scenes in your life to refine and purify you to receive him as your Savior now so that you can have peace when he comes as Judge.


Of course, there is no true peace to be found merely in the fact that we sit and listen to a preacher shout Law and Gospel in our direction or that we groan under the pain of the Lord’s refining and purifying work in our lives. Because no matter how effective the preacher and the pain are, they cannot provide perfect cleansing; they cannot give us perfect peace. Sin is stitched so deeply into the fabric of our being that it cannot be removed by a million confessions or a lifetime of pain. As God drilled into the Israelites through his requirement of thousands of animal sacrifices, the process of removing sin calls for blood, it requires death. In his mercy, God spared us this part of the process and laid it on his own Son. True peace doesn’t come through what Jesus does to us, but what he has done for us. To see the fire it took to remove the impurity of your sin from your record, look at the cross, where Jesus hung, bleeding from head and hands and feet, enduring the blazing fire of God’s wrath for your sins and the sins of the world. To understand what it took to cleanse the stain of sin from your soul, see that soldier plunge his spear into the side of God’s lifeless Son, unleashing the blood (John 19:34) which purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7) However humiliating it is to confess your sins, however much it hurts when Jesus cuts your ties to this dying world – know that you are not and never will suffer the punishment for your sins – Jesus already did that. Repentance and pain are how the Lord leads you to trust in him, purifies your faith in him!


And this process reaps real results here and now. Just as you don’t wash clothes simply for the sake of making them clean or refine ore simply for the sake of having a lump of pure gold or silver – you do it so that they become useful again – so God hasn’t saved us from destruction so that we could just sit around and wait for Jesus to arrive. Malachi concludes: Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. The Hebrew word for offering (mincah) doesn’t refer to a sin offering but rather a thank offering. Imagine that: God promises to humble us with repentance and make our lives painful and he expects us to thank him for it! Really? What else could we do? Even with our imperfect earthly parents, we (hopefully) eventually thank them for disciplining us, for causing us temporary pain to bring about long-term gain. How much more shouldn’t we thank God for the pain that leads to eternal life? How do we thank him for the gift of salvation? Through our offerings, our hymns of praise, our confession of faith, our attendance in worship and the time we set aside for daily devotion and prayer - yes. But it’s so much more than that. Having been purified by Jesus’ blood, our whole lives are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) which are acceptable to the LORD. Your diligence at school and work, your love for your family and friends, your preparations for Christmas, whatever you will do when you leave here and when you wake up tomorrow – it’s all acceptable to the LORD because it comes from you: purified, prepared believers. You, dear friends in Christ, are the real results of the Lord’s purifying process.


Peace requires preparation. That’s how it works in this world – before any big day, party or gathering. That’s how it works when it comes preparing to receive Christ when he comes. We often make the mistake of viewing this life (or some part of it) as the “main event.” It’s not. Every moment of this life is preparation for the party to come. But even now, in the middle of this troubled life, we have peace – the peace God’s angels sang about on Christmas Eve. We know that in spite of the stains and impurities that are inherent in us, God has declared peace with us through Christ. We know that when Jesus returns or calls us home the trouble will be over once and for all – and we will experience perfect, permanent peace. And until then, we know that the Lord uses pain in our lives for our good, to lead us to believe him as our Savior today so that we can have peace when he comes as Judge. Thanks be to Jesus for this gift of peace. Amen.



Jeremiah 33:14-16 - Advent Expectations - December 2, 2018

Expectations. We all have them. We have them for other people and they have them for us. Parents have expectations for their children and children for their parents. We have expectations for our spouse, our employer, our government, our church. This time of year, expectations are often raised. We expect decorations to dazzle, packages to arrive on time, dollars to stretch, everyone to be a little bit nicer, every gift given and received to be perfect. Then there are the expectations people have for God. They expect him to be there when they need him – and to leave them alone the rest of the time, to alleviate all pain and suffering, to right every wrong and punish every evil, to send snow only when it’s convenient and make the sun shine the rest of the time. Maybe that’s an exaggeration – or maybe not. The point is that we all have expectations – there’s no denying it. The fact that we are frequently disappointed is proof. You can’t be disappointed if you don’t have expectations. Advent is a season of expectation, of waiting, of hoping. For what? What should we expect to receive from God this Christmas? The prophet Jeremiah shows us.


The Israelites were people who had high expectations for God. They knew they were specially selected and protected by God and set apart from all other nations. (Deuteronomy 7:7-9) They possessed a special identity – children of Abraham, a Promised Land, God’s written Law and his Promise of salvation. There has never been and will never be another nation like OT Israel. And they expected to never lose this privileged status. In return, God expected Israel to be loyal and obedient to him. But Israel did not live up to God’s expectations. She was faithless and idolatrous and adulterous – and so she should have expected that God would keep his promise to tear them out of their homes and carry them away from their land as punishment – just as he had already done with the 10 northern tribes. (2 Chronicles 7:19-22) But she didn’t, so God sent Jeremiah to remind them.


Jeremiah was God’s spokesman before and after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and took her people into exile. God warned Jeremiah of the coming destruction and he warned the people. But like people who turn the volume down when there’s a severe weather warning, the people ignored him. In fact, they actively tried to silence him. He was depressing. Bad for morale. Unpatriotic. They couldn’t fathom God ever allowing such a thing to happen to his chosen people. They had Jeremiah locked in prison (Jeremiah 37) and tossed into a cistern (Jeremiah 38) to shut him up. Even so, Jeremiah continued to speak God’s Word. He spoke of imminent desolation (25-29), but also of restoration. (30-33) Exile and return. Destruction and construction. Death and life. Jeremiah’s message dashed their short-term expectations but gave them long-term hope. That’s the buildup to today’s reading.


‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. One of the many important themes we find throughout the OT is this: God keeps his promises to real people in real history. Even if that’s all we got from reading the OT, it would be well worth our time. ‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. Even in the darkness and hopelessness of exile in Babylon, believers like Daniel and Esther clung to God’s promise to send a descendant of David who would deliver them. Even though the Temple of the Lord lay in ruins and their king was bound in chains, they believed that the day would come when Judah would be delivered and Jerusalem would live in peace and safety. They longed for it. They hoped for it. They expected it.


Then finally, after 70 years, came Cyrus’ decree (Ezra 1:1-4) which allowed the exiles to return to Judah, to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple under Ezra and Nehemiah. God kept his promise. They were back. But not really. It wasn’t the same – it was a sad shadow of the glory days under David and Solomon. When the old timers looked at the rebuilt temple they wept and said – as old timers of every generation tend to “It’s not as good as it used to be.” (Ezra 3:12) And it wasn’t. The Ark of the Covenant had been lost or destroyed. (Jeremiah 3:16) The glory of the Lord didn’t fill the temple. They weren’t free. They were occupied by foreign powers: Persia then Greece then Rome. But even then, the faithful in Israel never forgot the words of the prophet Jeremiah – the promise of a righteous King from David’s line. One who would do what is just and right and bring salvation from their oppressors. They remembered this promise and even in the darkest of days they looked forward in hope. They continued to expect something greater.


Over the years various Messiah-like figures arose and attempted to bring liberation and restoration to Israel. But they all flamed out. And then, a week before Passover, here comes a most unexpected candidate: Jesus of Nazareth, with his band of rag-tag followers, riding on a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem. But the crowds had seen what Jesus was capable of and hailed him as their King. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David. (Mark 1:10) They were right. Every prophecy he fulfilled and miracle he performed proved that this was the One, the righteous Branch from David’s line.


What did those people expect of Jesus? What were they hoping for? What they had always hoped for: a holy war, the restoration of Israel’s political freedom, a descendant of David on the throne, and glory restored to the Temple. And that’s exactly what Jesus brought. But not in the way they expected. He came to do justice to their sin and ours, to be righteous in ways we have not and cannot. He came to carry out a great exchange: our sin for his righteousness. He came to be our substitute – the King Israel really needed, to sprout up in Bethlehem only to be to be chopped down and burned in the fire of God’s wrath against our sin on Calvary. He came to launch a holy war – not against Rome, but against sin and death and the devil – the powers of hell that threatened to destroy us eternally. Jesus came to save Israel – not by ruling on a throne but by dying on a cross. In Jesus, God kept his promise to Israel.


Is that what you expect of Jesus, what you are hoping to receive from him? Are you longing for the kind of king who is born in a barn, eats and drinks with prostitutes and criminals, washes his disciples’ feet, rides on a borrowed donkey, carries his own cross to a hill outside Jerusalem to bleed and die for you? Does he meet your expectations? Because this is not the kind of king the world expects and demands (offer free forgiveness and peace with God – nah, I’ll pass…but offer daycare and financial seminars – now that kind of Jesus gets people excited). Unfortunately, those false expectations leak into our lives too. Maybe it’s not so much that we expect a conquering hero type – a manly, Vladimir Putin type to rescue us. But we often expect Jesus to fix our short term problems. We expect Jesus to be a therapist who will heal the rifts in our families in time for Christmas, a UPS man who brings us the material things we want when we want them, a doctor to heal our failing bodies and minds, a baby sitter to raise our kids, a financial adviser who will keep our nest egg safe or a buddy to cheer us up when we’re down. If that’s what you’re expecting, prepare to be disappointed this Christmas. In fact, repent right now for having false expectations. That king isn’t coming because that isn’t the King God promised. On the other hand, if you expect to receive what God promised – a King from David’s line, who will do what is just and right, who will suffer God’s wrath in your place, who still brings amazing gifts to you in humble ways (through Word and water, bread and wine): then prepare to receive more than you ever expected. Because a Savior from sin is God’s Christmas gift to you. He is the King God sends you.


And he’s the King we need, not because his coming will change your current circumstances – because he will make the Christmas lights shine a little brighter or the deals a little better – but because he comes to do something even more amazing and necessary: he comes to change you. He comes to save you, to give you a new name and a place in God’s eternal kingdom. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness. In the NT, Jerusalem is the name given to the Christian Church – all believers everywhere. (Revelation 21) The translation is misleading here, it literally reads this is the name by which SHE will be called. She. The Church. The Bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:25-27) She takes the name of her groom. His name is The LORD Our Righteousness and so is hers. And, more importantly, that is the name God gave you when he washed you in the waters of Baptism.


We need this King because we desperately need the gift only he can give: perfect righteousness. This is good news that is better than any Christmas bonus or stocking stuffer; this good news is better than we could ever have any right to expect: righteousness – the perfect life (in thought, word and deed) that God demands from us – is not something we do, it’s something Jesus does. Not something you have to earn, something he freely gives. That’s not what we expect when it comes to God and righteousness and salvation. That’s not what our children expect either, if we fill their minds with demonic ideas of a fat man in a red suit whose gifts are based on whether you are naughty or nice. We expect to have to do it (and so does Santa), but Jesus does it. We expect to have to earn it and prove ourselves worthy of eternal life. He earns it for us and makes us worthy. Jesus is the LORD Our Righteousness and, through faith, his name is our name, his righteousness is our righteousness. Expect Jesus to come to change you, to give you a name you have not and could never earn – and you will not be disappointed this Christmas.


Advent is the season of expectations. The expectations of the holiday season, of the coming of Christmas, of family and friends. Both reasonable and unreasonable expectations. Advent is a season of watchful waiting, like Israel in exile, waiting and watching for Savior God promised to appear. Once he came in a manger in Bethlehem and riding on a donkey into Jerusalem to win our righteousness. Now he comes to you in water and Word, bread and wine to give you his righteousness. Soon he will come in power and glory at the end of time to raise you to the eternal righteousness. Expect him. Place your hope in him. He always exceeds expectations. Amen.

Mark 13:24-37 The End of the World As We Know It - November 25, 2018

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1) And everything that has a beginning…also has an ending. Just as God brought about the beginning, so God will bring about the ending. We’ve come to the end of the Christian calendar; the last Sunday in the church year. Next week is Advent; a new beginning. But today we consider the Last Day as described by the only one who knows: Jesus Christ. It’s the end of the world as we know it.


If we’re honest, we will admit that it’s impossible for us to imagine everything in the universe coming to an abrupt, sudden end, isn’t it? We tend to think in terms of a slow wasting away, a steady and predictable winding down. In fact, that’s how we like it. We like to know when our cars, our furnaces, our bodies are going to die – because then we think we have some control, some time to prepare, perhaps something we can do to prevent it. Human pride doesn’t want to think about a last day, a day when everything we know simply stops, ends, vanishes in a flash – completely outside of our control. But that is precisely how Jesus describes the end: the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. It doesn’t seem possible; but it is certain, just as certain as the fact that God created everything from nothing in the beginning.


How does it feel to know that at any moment everything you’ve ever known could be destroyed? The tendency is to doubt it, dread it, or dismiss it. Either we doubt all this end times talk and think “yeah, I’ll be dead and gone long before then” – or we dread the coming end and live in fear, searching for signs, hoping to somehow wrap our arms around it and bring it under our control. The world simply dismisses it as religious speculation; fake news. So the world just goes on, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage (Matthew 24:38) – oblivious to the fact that one day, it’s all going to come crashing down. But just as Jesus promises that this universe will be shaken, so he shakes up our tendencies. He doesn’t want us to wait for the End of the world with doubt, dread, or dismissal; but rather to trust his Word, be watchful and hopeful.


There’s only one reason the end of the world is good news: At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Jesus’ return will be a dramatic reversal of his Ascension into heaven. (Acts 1:1-11) Instead of a cloud hiding him from sight, the clouds will reveal his arrival. Instead of 11 disciples gazing at the sky, the whole world will witness his return. Instead of veiling his divinity under the cloak of humiliation, Jesus will return with great power and glory. But despite the differences, one thing won’t change. The one who returns in judgment will be the same one who was born in a manger, who sought out the sick and the sinner, who brought forgiveness and healing, who suffered, was crucified, died and rose again to pay for our sins. This same Jesus (Acts 1:11) that the disciples had seen and heard and touched – that we have heard and touched and received in Word and Sacrament – will be the one returning in the clouds.


He will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. It will be the grand family reunion that the children of God have been waiting for, a day when the Church – that appears so hopelessly scattered and fragmented today – will be visibly and permanently united as one. The contrast is striking: even as everything in this universe is falling apart, the church is put back together.


While it will be a day of judgment and destruction for those who rejected him, Jesus doesn’t mention that here. His goal is to fortify the faith and hope of his disciples. For believers, the end of the world isn’t a day of death but a day of life. Just as he called the appearance of false prophets and wars and disasters birth pains (Mark 13:8), so he compares these cosmic signs to a fig tree budding on the cusp of summer. In the midst of terror and destruction, Jesus is bringing life! The destruction of the world as we know isn’t the end for us, it is the beginning – the beginning of life in a new heaven and new earth – just as God intended it! Who would have guessed it? Who could have known it? It’s the exact opposite of what scientists and physicists claim will happen when the sun goes dark. Which is why the only one we can trust to inform us about the end of time is the one who came from heaven. (John 3:13)


I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. There are those who claim that the Bible has been revised over the centuries to remove inaccuracies and contradictions. If that were true, I would ask, how did this verse survive? It would seem that it would have been wise for the early Church to just scrub this verse, because it appears that Jesus made a big mistake: the world didn’t end in his generation, nor has it ended 50 generations later. [1] But this verse still stands there in black and white – and it forces us to think more deeply about what Jesus means. [2]


In the most important sense – these things did happen. The sun was darkened, the earth shook, the dead rose, the laws of nature bent before their Maker, when Jesus died on the cross. That was, in a very real sense, the end of the world as we know it. Jesus shouldered the entire curse of sin that permeates this world – all the guilt, shame, pain, sorrow, decay – and carried it to the cross where the fury of God’s wrath destroyed it and him. That was the true Judgment Day for believers – because God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) And when we were baptized, this world died to us and we died to this world. (Galatians 6:14)


But these things (the signs of the end) also happened (began happening) forty years later – when the Roman army overran Jerusalem and tore down the temple until not one stone was left upon another. At the time believers viewed this as the beginning of the end – they expected Jesus to return at any moment. In fact, in every generation of believers have lived as though the world would end any day. Paul did. (1 Corinthians 7:29) The early church fathers did. Luther did. Because they saw the signs all around them and believed Jesus’ words. And even though their lives ended before the world did, they weren’t wrong.


Because living today as if it will all end tomorrow – that’s what it means to be Christian. Which is why Satan works so hard to confuse and distort the Biblical message of the end times. He uses his same old lie: did God really say? (Genesis 3:1) with great effect. He leads us to focus all our effort and attention – not on God’s Word, but on the things and opportunities of this world. He even leads us to believe that mankind has some role in either bringing about or delaying the end of the world. Don’t fall for his lies. Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus swears. Everything you see, taste, touch, smell – everything you bought on Black Friday – it will all be destroyed. But the words of the Lord will never pass away – will never have to be revised or corrected. When? When will the end come? When do I need to start getting serious about this Christianity stuff? No one knows but the Father.


So don’t worry about when, that’s above our pay-grade, that’s God’s business. Instead, Jesus says, today: be on guard! Be alert! Jesus says we are to be like watchmen waiting for the owner to return. He could come at any time of day or night – and whenever he does, he expects us to be ready, focused, awake. That doesn’t mean that you don’t go to sleep at night. It doesn’t mean you go and sell all your possessions. It doesn’t mean you don’t plan for the future. It doesn’t mean that you quit your job and stand around looking at the skies waiting for Jesus to appear. (The angels told the disciples not to do that! Acts 1:11) It means that you go about the work God has given you to do – whatever it is – with the understanding that he could return at any moment, and he wants to find you doing his will.


It should be obvious (but, sadly, it’s not) it means that there is never any good, appropriate time to go wandering away from the Lord’s presence and power in Word and Sacrament. The idea that there are some times in life – the decade after you’re confirmed, when work or family demand your Sunday mornings, when the spirit is willing but the body is weak (Matthew 26:41), when it’s inconvenient – that God understands that sometimes some things are more important than worshipping him. That is a damned lie. Jesus never said that. This is what Jesus says: What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’


Jude lays out a simple preparedness plan: build yourselves up in your most holy faith. (Jude 20-21) Build yourself up in your faith, the faith you were baptized and confirmed into, the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), faith that confesses Jesus as your personal Savior and Lord who redeemed you and made you his own by shedding his own blood. Repent, daily. Study the Christian faith. Learn the Christian faith. Know what you believe and why you believe it – don’t put it off, and don’t think that it’s just for kids, because one day, it will be too late.


Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. This is amazing: the world as we know it will be destroyed, but Jesus will come bringing mercy, not wrath. Mercy is kindness to those who don’t deserve it. Mercy is what God gives us here and now when he announces that we have been justified in his sight – declared “not-guilty”, that our names have been written in the book of life in Baptism, that in Communion we receive a foretaste, a down-payment of what’s to come. To keep in God’s love means nothing more and nothing less than to take every opportunity to receive God’s forgiving love in Christ. That’s why we worship, every week, all year long. Here is where God distributes the grace and the guidance we need to be ready and watchful and prepared for the day he brings this world to a screeching halt. It’s not about doing something for God, it’s about receiving a preview of eternity, sampling the Lamb’s wedding feast, it’s about gathering with fellow believers, encouraging each other to remain watchful as the day approaches. (Hebrews 10:25)


If any of it depended on us, we’d be doomed. If it depended on our vigilance, our faith and our godly living – we wouldn’t survive the end of the world. But, thank God, he doesn’t leave it up to us – he placed that burden on Jesus. The blood Jesus shed on the cross will not only shield us from the destruction that is coming, but is also the garment of righteousness that we will wear to the grand reunion of believers in glory. One day this world as we know it will end. And that’s good news, because then we will experience life in the world Jesus is preparing for us, life free from sin and sorrow, from pain and death. That is a day worth preparing for. Amen.

[1] Assuming that 40 years = a generation

[2] Another possible interpretation is that generation refers to all who reject Jesus as God and Lord – thus, unbelief won’t pass away until all these things happen. See also Matthew 16:4.

Mark 13:1-13 - End Times Birth Pains - November 18, 2018

One of the saddest consequences of sin is that one of God’s greatest blessings is accompanied by some of the greatest pain a person can endure: childbirth. Nine months of waiting and anticipating, nausea and discomfort, culminating in indescribable hours of labor and delivery. And yet, that final pain is the part that expecting mothers look forward to the most. Why? Because it means the months of discomfort are almost over, and a precious new life will have arrived. As we turn our attention to the end times, Jesus warns us that believers aren’t going to experience perfect joy and peace in this world, but are going to experience all kinds of suffering, birth pains – and he wants us to understand that these birth pains mean that our suffering is almost over and salvation is almost here.


As Jesus and his disciples were leaving the temple on Tuesday of Holy Week, one of the disciples was struck by a sudden bout of tourism. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Herod’s temple renovation project (a project 46 years in making[1]) was in full swing. With some of the stones weighing over 100 tons and glazed in gold, it would certainly have been a sight to see. [2] Jesus, however, is unimpressed. “Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” For the disciples, this was unsettling news. The Temple was the center of their religion, the place God came to them and they came to God. This prediction was so crazy that the disciples didn’t bring it up again until they had crossed the Kidron Valley to the Mt. of Olives – and then, only four had the guts to ask Jesus what he meant.


“Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” That’s what everyone wants to know, right? There’s a whole cottage industry built to profit from end times speculation. Left Behind. The Late Great Planet Earth. Y2K. The Mayan calendar. Blood moons. Every year some new book or movie comes along speculating about specific times and dates and signs. And, like lemmings, many people (sadly, often Christians) scurry to see the movie, buy the book, and enroll in the seminar. Everyone wants to know when the end will come. But Jesus doesn’t give times or dates, he gives us what we need more: signs to watch for, warnings and encouragements to keep us on the narrow road of faith.


There will be signs in the Church. False christs, false religions and false gospels which aren’t good news at all. We have them today – cults that enslave millions, prophets promising salvation apart from Christ, religious superstars offering access to God apart from his Word. And people will (and do) believe them – especially if they can cook up some great signs and wonders – because people who are not grounded on the rock of Scripture will believe anything. There will be signs in the political world. Wars and rumors of wars…nation against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear the rumbling of war in some corner of the world. There will be signs in nature, signs of creation groaning against the burden of sin (Romans 8:22): earthquakes in various places, and famines, not to mention floods, hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, droughts; signs that are all around us.


Isn’t that the exact opposite of what so many in our world hope for and expect? Aren’t most people expecting peace and prosperity and harmony in the future? That’s why Jesus says watch out that no one deceives you. Don’t be deceived by those who come in Jesus’ name and yet don’t point to Jesus’ words and works, his death and resurrection, his body and blood, Baptism and the forgiveness of sins in his name for salvation – these are false prophets. When you hear of wars – don’t listen to those who promise peace; nor to the alarms that the world will end in a nuclear holocaust – because Jesus has said: these things must happen, but the end is still to come. Don’t be deceived by those who claim that poverty and hunger can be stamped out if we just put our minds to it – nor those who say that we can end natural disasters by giving up fossil fuels, because Jesus has promised there will always be famines and earthquakes. So don’t be deceived, but also, don’t forget Jesus’ encouragement: these are the beginning of birth pains. While these pains are certainly tangible calls for repentance (Luke 13:2-5), for we who have been washed in the water of Baptism, they are signs that Jesus keeps his Word: things will go from bad to worse, the pains will grow more frequent and intense, but these signs mean that our suffering is almost over.  


While all the world will experience some end times birth pains, some is reserved only for Jesus’ disciples. They will be handed over to religious councils, beaten in the synagogues, put on trial before the civil authorities. But even this serves God’s good purpose. Through the persecution of God’s people, the Gospel of Jesus would be preached to all nations. Just as Jesus was the target of both religious and state persecution – and the Church was born out of his suffering and death – so God’s evangelism plan for his Church continues to include persecution. The book of Acts bears this out. Time and again, in city after city, the apostles are hauled before religious authorities, they’re told to stop preaching the name of Jesus, they’re beaten and imprisoned and threatened with death. (Acts 4-5) And what happened as a result? The word of God spread. (Acts 6:7)


That’s not exactly what we would expect or hope for, is it? We tend to think that the Church will thrive in times of peace. We tend to think that civil authorities should support and defend Christianity because Christianity supports and defends freedom, morality, family, justice, and obedience to the authorities. We tend to think that all the world should see Christianity as the only truly inclusive religion that preaches hate towards no one and God’s love for all. And yet, the fact remains that the gospel of Christ crucified is the most offensive thing the world has ever heard, because the gospel says that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Just as powerful religious leaders teamed up with the civil authorities to get rid of Christ, so antichristian forces will continue to use the power of government to suppress and punish those who preach salvation through Christ alone. (Revelation 13) So be on your guard. But at the same time do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. This is not an excuse to grow lazy in Bible study – but it is a promise; a promise that if you are unexpectedly put on the spot to defend the faith – the Holy Spirit himself will give you the very words to speak.


But Jesus saves perhaps the most difficult birth pain for last: brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. I know that many of you have experienced shades of this firsthand. Family members – brothers, sisters, parents, children – who skip holidays, who screen your phone calls, who “unfriend” you on Facebook, who (to all appearances) would rather you were dead than be around you. No, it’s not because you burned the turkey one year or voted for the “wrong” candidate – but because of Christ. Because the darkness of unbelief hates the light of faith. (John 3:20) As hard as this might be, don’t be surprised, don’t despair – because Jesus has told you this will happen. And it won’t just be family members – all men will hate you because of me. No matter how nice we are. No matter what humanitarian efforts we undertake to help alleviate the misery of sin in this world – Christianity will never be popular. If you follow Christ, you will be hated – sometimes by those closest to you. Plan on it.


And…take heart. In the midst of this dying world there is life. In the darkest of days we cling to this hope: He who stands firm to the end will be saved. There is salvation at the end of this road. The birth pains, the sufferings of this present time, whatever form they take, are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed. (Romans 8:18) Some of the disciples who first heard these words lived to see the Roman army sweep through Jerusalem and topple every stone of the temple in 70 AD. History records that many Jews believed the end of the world had come, they ran for the hills and lost all hope – they thought God was dead. But Jesus’ disciples knew better, they knew this wasn’t the end because Jesus had warned them, and they boldly spread the gospel throughout the world – knowing that it is through the gospel of Jesus, not through the temple, that God brings salvation to sinners.


Jesus’ disciples never have to fear or despair over the birth pains of the end times. Why not? Because that Gospel has been proclaimed to us too. Because we know that as far as we are concerned the world has already ended. It ended on a Friday. On a hill outside Jerusalem. On a cross. As the religious and civil leaders raged against God and his holy one (Psalm 2:2); as the earth shook and the sky grew dark and the curtain in the Temple tore in two and the dead came out of their graves. (Matthew 27:51-53) In the midst of it all, Jesus cried out it is finished. (John 19:30) That was the consummation of all the birth pains the world has felt since Adam and Eve brought the curse of sin into this world. For all the times we clung to false hopes and false teachers, for all the times we let the pain of the times drown our hope and give in to despair, for all the times we have failed to be watchful and ready, for all the times we have chosen our family over our Savior; Jesus stood firm. He stood firm to the end. He stood firm on his Father’s promise that he wouldn’t abandon him to the grave. (Psalm 16:10) And, in the end, he ushered in salvation for every believer. And when you were baptized, you were baptized into his death and resurrection. (Romans 6:3) The world can’t do anything to you – because you’re already dead to it (Galatians 6:14), and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3) That faith, that confidence in chaotic times – that’s why the world will hate you. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you. It’s Jesus. And the pain you feel, well, that’s just another sign that your salvation is almost here.  


Birth pains are never pleasant. They mean prolonged hardship and discomfort. And yet, from the hand of God they are blessed signs for believers. Signs that the suffering is almost over, signs that salvation is almost here. Don’t be deceived. It will get worse before it gets better; but rejoice: he who stands firm in Christ to the end will be saved. Amen.

[1] See John 2:20

[2] According to Josephus, Antiquities, 15.11.3

Mark 12:28-34 - The Whole Duty of Man - November 11, 2018

It’s Veteran’s Day, and on Veteran’s Day we remember and express our gratitude for those who have served their Lord, their nation and all of us in the armed forces. Service members understand, probably better than anyone else, the importance of doing one’s duty: of upholding the oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and following the orders of commanding officers whether you agree with them, like them, or understand them or not. As Tennyson wrote in The Charge of the Light Brigade: soldiers understand that “theirs [is] not to make reply, theirs [is] not to reason why, theirs [is] but to do and die.” [1] Echoing the conclusion of King Solomon, Jesus teaches us this morning that fearing God and keeping his commandments is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13) Jesus defines this duty to us; Jesus provides this duty for us.


We have jumped ahead in Mark’s gospel to Tuesday of Holy Week. All day Jesus had held court before the crowds who had gathered for the Passover festival, both those who adored him and those who hated him. He had patiently responded to his enemies who peppered him with ‘gotcha’ questions (Mark 12:13) regarding his authority (Mark 11:27-33), paying taxes (Mark 12:13-27), and marriage in the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27). By consistently destroying his enemies’ arguments with the sword of the Spirit…the word of God (Ephesians 6:17) he not only left his opponents speechless, but revealed himself to be the wisdom of God incarnate (1 Corinthians 1:24), the teacher greater than Solomon Israel had been waiting for. (Matthew 12:42)


But Jesus’ opponents had one last hope to discredit him and his ministry before the people. They sent a teacher of the law armed with the godfather of Jewish questions: of all the commandments, which is the most important? This was a loaded question; for at least two reasons. First, the rabbis had shifted the focus from the moral will of God (the 10 commandments) to the numerous civil and ceremonial laws God had given his people [2] which led to endless bickering over which was the most important. [3] (Which was why they probably figured that no matter how Jesus answered, he would tick someone off.) And, second, because Jesus was standing in the temple, surrounded by rituals, sacrifices and washings certainly, one would think that in keeping with his surroundings, he would say that the greatest commandment was something like making sure to bring the full tithe or making sure that the sacrificial animals were without defect, right? Something outward. Something formal. Something a person could do and be done with – that was, and is, the way many people think religion works.


But Jesus doesn’t debate the relative importance of ceremonial washings or sacrifices, nor does he give them his opinion, he gives them more Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4, which isn’t a command but a statement. Hear, O Israel – listen up!; the LORD – “Yahweh”, the great “I AM”, the one who created the universe in six days, the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who rescued your fathers from Egypt and promised salvation to all people - this LORD is not just a God; he is our God – who chose us, for no reason other than he wanted to, who has promised to redeem us, who has adopted us as his children. We belong to him and he belongs to us; [This] LORD is one – there is no one like him. He is the only true God. He is the only Creator, Savior, and Judge. This may seem obvious, but, unfortunately, for many people it’s not: our duty as humans doesn’t begin with what we do, it begins with recognizing who our God (your commanding officer) is! Before Jesus commands anything, he reminds us that God loved us first! (1 John 4:19)


If we recognize the LORD – the God who created, saved, and adopted us – as our God, then the greatest commandment makes perfect sense: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. What does the LORD demand from us? Nothing less than perfect, absolute loyalty. He demands that we love him with every fiber of our being; that every thought in our minds, every desire of our hearts, every choice we make and every action we take is perfectly in line with his holy will. The LORD is not the God many people think he is, who is on his knees begging for attention, begging us to try our best to fit him into our busy schedules and lives; he is demanding, commanding us to fit our lives and schedules into him and his will. The primary duty we owe to the LORD is to have no other gods – to allow nothing and no one to take his place as the “commanding officer” of our hearts, minds and lives. And – why would you want to? There is no other God and no other Savior!


That’s the first, the second is this: ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these. This is really not a second commandment, but an extension of the first. Because [God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, (Acts 17:25) – while our hearts are to serve God alone, our hands are to serve others. Our relationship with others is a reflection of our relationship with God, as St. John writes: if anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)


Two questions automatically come to mind: who and how? The world has made a mess of these questions, but the biblical answers are clear, if not easy. Your neighbor is the person you are “next to” (πλησίον). Your neighbor is the person next to you in bed, at home, at the office, in the checkout line, at the 4-way stop sign, sitting behind you right now. How are you to love them? We already heard Paul’s definition of love: love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8) If you look through commandments 4-10, you quickly find that warm, fuzzy feelings are not listed anywhere. In the Bible love is not an emotion; it is action. They are commands and prohibitions regarding how you are to act in relation to your neighbor’s authority, life, sexuality, possessions, and reputation. By respecting his or her authority, by protecting and supporting the lives and livelihoods of others, by keeping yourself and others sexually pure, by helping them keep their possessions and by defending their reputation you are loving them as you love yourself. That’s it. That’s the whole duty of man in one word: love; love God above all things, love your neighbor as yourself. Even the teacher of the law had to agree that these commandments are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.


And yet, while this confession put him on the road to salvation, Jesus makes it clear that he wasn’t yet saved. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Why? Why can the law bring us near God’s kingdom but not into it? Because the law is perfect (Psalm 19:7) but we are not; because the law can tell us what we must do, but it can’t help us do it; because the law can point out where we have failed, but it cannot take away our failures; because we can make a pretty good show of loving others – but God sees our hearts and sees when we do “good” things grudgingly or resentfully. (1 Samuel 16:7) And, as a result, God has already announced his verdict on the world, on everyone sitting in this room, on each of us individually: there is no one who does good, not even one. (Romans 3:12) And the sooner we recognize and confess that about ourselves, the sooner we will understand that something more than our best effort is needed to be accepted into God’s kingdom, his salvation, his heaven.


Which shows the absolute necessity of the second part of our duty to God. Jesus describes part two in John’s Gospel: the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29) This part involves work, too – but not our work. It is God’s work of creating faith in us to see and believe that the one giving these commands to us has come to fulfill these commands for us. The whole reason Jesus was there on Tuesday of Holy Week, holding court before people who hated him and were planning his death was that he knew that even if we understood God’s Greatest Commandment perfectly, there was no chance that we could ever do it. He knew that we would never love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. He knew that we are too self-centered and self-interested to love others as much as we love ourselves. He knew that left to our own powers and abilities and desires we would be found guilty of failing to perform our duty and doomed to an eternity in hell’s prison.


Jesus came to earth to provide the perfectly dutiful life God demands from us, for us. He provided it by becoming one of us – by voluntarily placing himself under his Father’s authority and placing himself next to the same frustrating, exasperating people you and I call our neighbors. He provided it by loving God with every fiber of his being and loving others infinitely more than he loved himself. And he proved the full extent of his love (John 13:1) by smothering the grenade of God’s wrath for us on the cross – sparing us, saving us, redeeming us from the punishment we deserved. And unlike any soldier, any man, woman, or child to ever live – he could say that he completed his duty perfectly, he did say it (which includes everything God demands of you) is finished. (John 19:30) The whole duty that God demands from you is provided for you in Christ – so that through faith in Jesus we can be absolutely sure that when we stand before God for our performance review on the Last Day, we will hear: well done, good and faithful servant…come and share your master’s happiness. (Matthew 25:23) On Veteran’s Day, because of Jesus, we can be confident that when this tour of duty is over we will be honorably discharged into God’s presence in heaven.


Until then, we still need to know the greatest commandment; we still need to know our duty to the LORD who loved us first. “Ours is not to make reply, ours is not to reason why” – and because of Jesus, our end is not to die. Our duty to our LORD is to know and obey his commands perfectly; and because we can’t, to turn in faith to Jesus – who has! On Veteran’s Day and Judgment Day and every day in between – this is the whole duty of man. Amen.


[2] 248 positive laws – as many as the members of the body; and 365 negative ones – as many as the days in the year; a total of 613 – as many as the letters in the Decalogue. (Wenzel)

[3] For example: if anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath…if anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ …you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:16-22)

Mark 10:46-52 - We Are All Beggars - November 4, 2018

While few men have written more or had more written about them than Martin Luther; there is surprisingly little written about the last days of his life. One of the only noteworthy items from his last days comes from a scrap of paper his friends found in his coat pocket. In this note Luther had written two short phrases, the first in Latin, the second in German: “Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Bettler.” “This is true. We are all beggars.” [1] What had this man – whom God had chosen as his special instrument to reform the Church; this German monk – through whom God had brought the mighty church of Rome to its knees; this pastor – to whom God had granted extraordinary gifts to translate, interpret, communicate and rightly divide the Word of truth – what had he concluded after a lifetime full of accomplishment? That he – and we all – are nothing more than beggars before a holy and gracious God; who can do nothing but cry to Jesus, who must do nothing but receive his gifts, who joyfully follow him.


It was just days before Holy Week; just days before Jesus would march into Jerusalem to shouts of “hosanna” and march out to cries of “crucify him!” Mark picks up his account as Jesus was passing through Jericho – a city about 15 miles from Jerusalem. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. Partially due to poor hygiene and unsanitary conditions, partly due to a superstitious rejection of sound medical advice [2], blindness was a terribly common thing in Jesus’ day. Blindness is a horrible affliction in any age, but it was especially so in 1st century Israel. There were no guide dogs, no talking traffic lights, no braille, no specialized schools or homes or services. Because no one would hire them for work – they were almost inevitably left to beg for their daily bread. To add insult to injury, the blind also lived under the social stigma that their blindness was God’s punishment for some sin that either they or their ancestors had committed. (John 9:1-2) These were the conditions under which Bartimaeus lived. He may have been blind, but he was under no illusion: he knew he was completely dependent on the mercy of others for his very existence.


But as blind as Bartimaeus was, there was one thing that, by God’s grace, he could see more clearly than many who had 20/20 vision. He was unable to work, unable to get to the temple by himself to present any sacrifices – but his ears worked just fine and he used them. And what he had heard was people talking about a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had traveled throughout Israel preaching a message of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness for sinners (a message that the Jewish teachers had all but lost) and performing miracles of healing that had never been seen before. And while many people saw nothing more than a man, the son of Joseph and Mary – Bartimaeus saw the promised Messiah, the Son God had promised to King David 1000 years earlier, who would establish God’s kingdom on earth and rescue his people from the misery of sin. (2 Samuel 7:11-16) Because Bartimaeus believed that this was the one man in the universe who could help him, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”


One can learn a lot from a blind beggar. First, while our world is convinced that seeing is believing, Bartimaeus turns this on its head: believing is seeing! Just think – at least some of those in that crowd in Jericho probably saw Jesus’ miracles with their own eyes – and we know for certain that many of the Jewish leaders who crucified Jesus did – but they still did not believe that he was the Son of God, the promised Savior. Faith does not come from seeing, faith comes from hearing the message (Romans 10:17) – still today. In the absolution, I cannot show you your rap sheet that has been cleansed of all sin by Jesus’ precious blood– you can only hear and trust Jesus’ promise in John 20: if you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:23) In Baptism, to our eyes nothing more dramatic happens than someone gets wet. But Peter declares that the impossible happens in that washing: baptism now saves you. (1 Peter 3:21) The bread and wine you will receive look like normal bread and wine but don’t believe your eyes, believe Jesus’ words: this is my body…this is my blood…which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26, 28) Many are waiting and demanding to see proof before they believe in Jesus, and they will be waiting all the way until Judgment Day – and the only thing they will see is Jesus’ wrath at their unbelief. Let us learn from Bartimaeus: hearing is believing and believing is seeing.


Second, whether we care to admit it or not, we are all like Bartimaeus, we are all beggars before God. As we have been studying in Bible class, Scripture is crystal clear in teaching that we are all completely helpless to save ourselves. (Romans 3:28; Galatians 3:10) We are conceived and born without true fear or faith in God; dead in sin, blind to the Gospel, enemies of God. Left to ourselves we cannot even obey the least of God’s commands, much less obey all of them to the perfect standard God demands. We are miserable beggars before God who can do nothing but cry for mercy. Which is why it’s no coincidence that one of the first things we do each week is sing or say the words of the Kyrie: “Lord have mercy.” [3] These words not only remind us that we are beggars; they remind us who is serving who in the “worship service” – we don’t come here to serve, but to be served by Jesus!


Bartimaeus believed he needed Jesus to serve him, and so he ignored the crowd’s attempts to silence him and shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” You would think Jesus would have better things to do, people to see, preparations to make as he walked the lonely road to the cross than be bothered with a miserable, blind beggar, wouldn’t you? In times of suffering and times of weakness we often think that Jesus has better things to do than concern himself with us and our problems. We might think that we shouldn’t bother him – that he must be too busy taking care of the great, big, important problems and people in the world. And we would be wrong. There is no problem too big and no believer too small for Jesus – because he came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10) Jesus came to hear and help beggars – beggars like Bartimaeus…beggars like you and me.

Bartimaeus didn’t waste any time. Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. That cloak was quite possibly Bartimaeus’ only earthly possession. It was the roof over his head and the mattress under his back, it was his shade tree and his pantry. And yet, at Jesus’ invitation, he threw it all aside to run to Jesus who he believed could give him everything he needed and more. He would let nothing keep him from Jesus. Is there anything hindering you? We, too, have a standing invitation from Jesus: come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:30) Is pride getting in the way? “I can handle this myself.” Is it embarrassment? “I shouldn’t have to beg for help.” Is an unhealthy trust in worldly distractions or remedies keeping you from Jesus? Is it doubt or unbelief? “Jesus couldn’t possibly help me in this situation.” Or maybe, is it guilt or shame? “Jesus knows what I’ve said, done, thought, why in the world would he help a miserable sinner like me?” Whatever it is, remember this: coming to Jesus for help is not about you, your worthiness or unworthiness; it’s all about him – his mercy, his power, his promises, his love. Remember: we are all beggars with nothing to offer, and everything to ask – and Jesus welcomes beggars.


Here’s the proof: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” Think about the guts it took to make that request. Bartimaeus wasn’t asking for a ride, for beer money, for food – he was asking for an impossible miracle. But he was convinced that this was God’s Son standing before him – the Son of David God had promised who would come specifically to open eyes that are blind and…release…those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42:7) Jesus’ answered Bartimaeus’ bold and impossible request. “Go…your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight. Jesus gave Bartimaeus an impossible gift: his sight.


Why? A more literal translation would be: “your faith has saved you.” Now understand, Jesus is not saying – like “faith-healers” today – that Bartimaeus’ great faith is what caused his healing. If that were true, why didn’t Bartimaeus simply “believe” himself healed sooner, why did he wait for Jesus to walk down the road? (“Faith healing” is a dangerous false teaching that turns faith into a work and grace into something we earn from God!) No, Bartimaeus’ faith healed/saved him because it led him to the only one who could heal him. Bartimaeus’ faith was nothing more (and nothing less) than a beggar’s open hand (organon leptikon – “receiving organ”) that would receive the gift Jesus would graciously give. Bartimaeus’ faith only saved him because, to put it bluntly: he begged the right person. Saving, healing, justifying faith doesn’t “do” anything; saving faith simply receives what Jesus freely gives.


And Bartimaeus’ faith didn’t stop there, he followed Jesus along the road. It’s still just days before Holy Week. Jesus’ road is still leading to Jerusalem, to the hornet’s nest of Jesus’ enemies who wanted him dead – which Bartimaeus was certainly aware of. Jesus’ road led directly to the cross. It led to suffering and pain and persecution – not only for Jesus but for all who were bold enough to follow him and confess his name. But Bartimaeus did it – because even though he would no longer have to beg for his daily bread – he still needed Jesus to suffer and die for his sins; he was still a spiritual beggar, he still needed what only Jesus could give him.


Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that so many people forget. Many people in every age behave like nine of the ten lepers in Luke 17 who, once they get what they want from Jesus, walk away from him and go their own way. Let us never forget that after we have come to Jesus in our time of need, after he has answered our cry for mercy, after he has assured us that our sins are forgiven and heaven is ours – that we are still, and will always be beggars. We never graduate beyond begging Jesus to provide everything from clothing and food to forgiveness and salvation. From the day we were brought to the font as helpless infants to the day we breathe our last – we remain beggars who must rely fully on Jesus’ mercy. The good news is that Jesus’ invitation to receive his gifts still stands! Even though we won’t see him walking by on the street, he does promise to meet us right here, where his Word is proclaimed and his Sacrament is distributed. This is why we come to church: this is where beggars like us come to receive the gifts Jesus freely gives – and receiving those gifts gratefully and faithfully is how we joyfully follow Jesus.


Luther was right. “We are all beggars.” Beggars who can do nothing but cry for mercy; must do nothing but receive what he wants to give; and beggars who joyfully want to follow Jesus to eternal life. Thank God that Jesus has time and mercy in abundance for beggars like us. Amen.  

[1] Kittleson, James A. Luther The Reformer Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 1986. (296-297) – LW 54:474

[2] “Mothers, in fact, allow [flies] to cling in half-dozens round the eyes of their babies, to ward off the ‘evil eye’…” (Wenzel, 556)

[3] CW p. 15

1 Corinthians 14:8 - The Lutheran Reformation: A Clear Trumpet Blast - October 28, 2018

Martin Luther was neither the first nor the last person to point out the theological and moral errors of the Roman Catholic church. Nor were the Lutherans the only group to break away from Rome after she rejected calls for reform. And yet, while the names of protestant leaders like John Huss, John Calvin, and John Wycliffe are unknown to most people, even the secular world recognized Martin Luther as the 3rd most influential person of the last millennium. [1] What was Luther’s secret? It wasn’t Luther at all; it was the weapon God gave him! Sola scriptura – the principle that Scripture is the only rule and norm for Christian teaching and living. Based on Scripture alone, Luther’s preaching and teaching sounded through the confusion of his day like a clear trumpet blast – that not only defeated the man-made arguments of religious experts but spoke comfort and peace to the lost, the wandering, the suffering and the dying.


We are once again living in a morally and theologically confused age. We live in a time when it is legal for a woman to murder the unborn child in her womb but spanking a child is viewed as child abuse; when the gift of marriage God designed for one man and one woman has been redefined to include two women or two men…and only the Lord knows who or what else; when our own local public schools have bought into the lie that you can change your gender as easily as you change your clothes. [2] And even in the Christian church there is an astonishing amount of confusion regarding how a person is saved – with most churches teaching that it’s a cooperative effort between God and man. Because the confusion of our world constantly threatens to drown out the truth, it is all-important that we rededicate ourselves to the clear trumpet blast of sola scriptura – with God’s promise that his Word provides the only solid foundation for both morality and faith.


In the context of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is admonishing the Corinthians for their practice of speaking in tongues (foreign languages) in the worship service. Paul doesn’t mince words, he says that if the church’s message is confused or compromised or unintelligible – it’s useless. He concludes: in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:19) In Luther’s day, the church had lost the clear trumpet blast of the moral principles God had engraved in stone on Mt. Sinai. The Roman Catholic church had, instead, invented their own morality – a morality by which they hoped, and even worse, taught others to hope, to please God and earn salvation. For years, Luther himself believed that taking monastic vows were the surest route to heaven; that there was moral value in walking around barefoot – especially in winter; in starving and beating himself; in renouncing marriage and living in poverty. Do these things, he was told, and God will be happy with you. So he did it. He became a model monk who desperately tried to find peace for his heart by torturing his body. He said “I was a good monk, and I kept the rules of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” [3]  


However, when God brought Luther into the light of his grace and opened his eyes to understand Scripture, he began to see the Law clearly. He learned the simple but profound truth that moral living is as simple as doing what God tells you to do in precisely the way God tells you to do it when he tells you to do it. Luther’s revolutionary discovery was that the only sure guide for human behavior is not the manmade laws of the church or society, but the Law of God found in the written Word of God. And Luther didn’t keep his discovery to himself, he passed it on to future generations – to us – in his catechisms.


Scripture alone – and nothing and no one else – fixes the moral limits God has established for mankind. And by God’s grace, Luther discovered, embraced, and explained these limits. The question is: does the written, revealed will of God establish the limits of right and wrong for us? Maybe an even more important question is: do we know the written and revealed will of God? When is the last time we cracked open the catechism? Can we all recite the 10 commandments and their meanings? If you don’t know God’s written, revealed, will by heart – how on earth could you ever follow it, and, just as importantly, how could you ever sound the clear trumpet blast of God’s unchanging will to others?


The fact is that our society is a moral wasteland. The world teaches a morality that is relative – that right and wrong are constantly shifting based on the situation, the person, the feelings and emotions involved. Relativism is no way to live – it leads only to constant uncertainty, doubt and contradiction – and eventually, hell. And, unfortunately, the world’s relativism has seeped into the church. Instead of asking what does the Scripture say? (Romans 4:3) many churches ask “what does the latest Christian best-seller say?” “what does your heart say?” “what makes sense?” “what is popular and acceptable to the world?” Basing morality on the wrong foundation is how we’ve gotten to the point that the “Lutheran” church down the street has a female pastor [4], that churches are consecrating homosexual marriages, that messages of equality and tolerance and climate change and social justice have taken the place of Law and Gospel in sermons.


If the church of Luther’s day needed a reformation, a return to the fixed moral standard established by God himself, the church of our day needs it even more – if in a little different way. By God’s grace Luther set the church free from a system of morality that was subject to the will of one man: the pope. The church today needs to be set free from a system of morality that is subject to the will of anyone and everyone. You’ve probably heard someone say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” What they mean is that they their moral basis is not the objective Word of God but their own subjective feelings. In other words, they base their morality on their own conscience. (Your conscience is that little voice in your head that tells you whether what you are doing is right or wrong.) Now, that sounds good – until you remember that since the Fall into sin, our consciences have been broken. (Jeremiah 17:9) Certainly Jesus promised freedom for our consciences in our lesson from John 8 – not freedom from God’s law but freedom from our sins against God’s law. In fact, Jesus said in Matthew: do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18) We are not free to choose our own moral standards, we are still bound by the moral will of our Creator. For all the faults of the Church in the middle ages, they at least believed in a fixed standard for right and wrong – even if it was the warped standard established by the pope. Today is much more like the time of the Judges in the OT, when everyone did as he saw fit. (Judges 21:25)


In the moral bankruptcy and confusion of our time, the church – our church – must once again be the trumpet that gives a bold and clear blast. We must boldly preach and teach that the only certain foundation for morality is God’s law – summarized in the 10 Commandments. A law that is good and perfect (Psalm 19:7), a law in which God himself, tells us what he demands of us, a law by which all people will be judged, a law that demands perfect obedience (not our best effort), a law that declares that the wrath of God and eternal punishment in hell is real for all who break it, even once.


Because only when the Law’s threats and curses are proclaimed clearly and faithfully will we see how far short we have fallen, only then will we despair of ever saving ourselves, only then will we fall on our faces and plead for God’s mercy – only then will we ask the most important question anyone could ever ask: How then can I be saved? (Matthew 19:25) Or as Luther put it: how can I find a gracious God? That’s the question that drove Luther – how can he obtain God’s favor? No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find the answer to that question in the man-made rules of the Catholic church or in his own conscience and obedience. But he did find it in the Gospel and he shared his discovery with the entire Church. He became a trumpet giving sinners a clear and certain call – in providing hopeless sinners a firm foundation for their faith. Again, Luther’s brilliance lay in his simplicity. If you want to know how to be saved from your sins, if you want a solid foundation for your faith and a solid anchor for your hope – read the Bible. Sola scriptura is not only the only firm foundation for morality, it is the only firm foundation for faith.


In the Middle Ages, the church had lost the Gospel tune. More and more of the so-called theological experts had drifted away from the plain, simple meaning of Scripture because they were offended by its simplicity and thought that something so simple couldn’t possibly be divine. Instead, they tried to find a deeper, more important, more spiritual meaning – a meaning that lay hidden somewhere behind (or apart from) the black and white of Scripture. Your average Christian was told that only an “expert” with a wild imagination could really know and interpret what the Bible had to say. And when it became clear that this practice only led to confusion (and despair), the church invented the doctrine that only the pope could properly interpret and explain Scripture.


Here, too, Luther made a discovery that each generation must make their own: the Bible says what it means and means what it says. If you want to know what the Bible means, read the Bible. This does not mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear and understandable with just a quick reading. In fact, apart from the Spirit’s gift of faith it’s all foolishness! (1 Corinthians 1:18) But it does mean that if you can understand the words, you can understand what God wants you to know and believe. Scripture is clear and understandable – it is a clear trumpet blast. (see Psalm 119:105; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 2 Peter 1:16-21) That’s why Luther translated the Bible into German – so that everyone could read it. That’s why next to worship, the second most important thing we can do is study the Bible – both here in Sunday school and Bible class and in our own homes.


But, as obvious as that may appear to be, it is again being lost in our time. It is being destroyed by those who tell us that there is a deeper meaning behind the simple words of Scripture; that the Bible contains God’s Word, but it also contains errors; that much of the Bible (especially the miracles) are just myths. But perhaps the single most destructive force is simply that many Christians don’t know Scripture because they don’t read the Bible. The result of all this is that the Bible has again become what it was in the Middle Ages – an unclear and mysterious book that very few people actually read and even fewer people believe. That is why today’s church is in need of a reformation just as much as the Catholic church was in the days of Luther.


Why? Why continue to sound the trumpet blast of sola scriptura in a world where everything is subjective and words don’t really have any meaning? Because our salvation depends on it. Because “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so!” Nothing is more important than Scripture because Scripture is the only pipeline we have to our Savior, Jesus Christ. We know that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save the world – only because the Bible tells us this. We know that God credits Jesus’ perfect life to our accounts – only because the Bible tells us so. We know that Jesus has paid for all the times we followed our own standards for morality rather than God’s – only because the Bible tells us so. We know that when we die we will go to heaven – only because the Bible tells us so. We know that until then, Jesus is ruling and guiding all things in this world for our eternal good – only because the Bible tells us so. The only clear, certain, unchanging thing that I can pass on to Jude, that any of us can pass on to the next generation is what the Bible says, because even though the grass withers and the flowers fall…the word of the Lord stand forever. (1 Peter 1:25)


God grant that we may boldly continue in our Lutheran heritage: to sound the crystal clear trumpet blast of sola Scriptura to a confused and dying world – that we and our neighbors and our children may have a firm foundation for morality, for faith, and for the hope of eternal life. Amen. [5]





[5] Adapted from Reformation sermon by Siegbert Becker (The Word Goes On, p. 272-276)

Mark 10:17-22 - What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life? - October 14, 2018

The man who fell on his knees at Jesus’ feet seemed to have the perfect recipe for human happiness. Mark tells us he was wealthy. (Mark 10:22) Luke tells us that he was powerful, a ruler. (Luke 18:18) Matthew tells us that he was young. (Matthew 19:20, 22) (Incidentally, the fact that the Holy Spirit had this incident recorded in three of the four Gospels tells us that the lesson taught here is important and worth repeating.) Young, rich, and powerful. That’s what everyone wants because that’s what the world says will make us happy. His wealth and power were likely inherited, because in Jesus’ day you didn’t ordinarily acquire wealth and power at a young age unless you inherited it. And so, the young man’s question makes sense: what must I do to inherit eternal life?


This man has everything you could want in life but he still felt an emptiness, a hollowness, he knew he was lacking something. Something money couldn’t buy and power couldn’t grab. Do you know what it is? An answer to his own mortality; a cure for death. A way to make sense of the harsh reality that you may possess everything this world can offer – but you can’t take any of it with you. It’s no coincidence that what nagged at this young man’s heart nags at the heart of every human being. Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) We all have an inkling that there’s something more, something bigger than us, something beyond our five senses. Everyone understands, sooner or later, that even the best this world can offer eventually vanishes, like a breath of vapor on a cold day. And that’s what brought this rich, young ruler to his knees before Jesus.


Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees who were constantly trying to trip Jesus up, to trap him in his words – this man was sincere. He really wants to know – needs to know – how to get and be sure of eternal life. He has a notion – the same notion we all naturally have: do good. Do enough good and you will have eternal life. Good teacher he says, recognizing that Jesus himself is someone who seems to have an idea about eternal life and is certainly also a doer of good. Jesus throws his flattery back at him. Why do you call me good? No one is good – except God alone. Jesus means what he says: no one is good. Not one. (Romans 3:10) We are all born with original sin, which means that even the “good” things we do are tainted by sin. (Isaiah 64:6) Only God is pure, unadulterated good. To call Jesus “good,” you must first call him God.


But he’s not looking for God to save him at this point, he’s looking for the one, last, greatest thing he can do to inherit eternal life for himself. Do you see the contradiction? How do you inherit anything? Do you do something? Certainly, you might try to butter up a rich aunt or uncle – you might make sure to call them on their birthday and show up to every family gathering to ensure your place in the will. But in the end, an inheritance requires two things: 1) someone to freely decide to give you their stuff; and 2) that someone to die. No doubt this young man understood this because someone, presumably his father, had died and left him his fortune and position of power.


And yet, he’s still convinced that eternal life is something he can earn. What must I do? The question shapes Jesus’ answer. “Doing” is all about the Law. Ask Jesus a law question and you will get a law answer. You can’t make the Law into Gospel, into good news – even though many try. Jesus obliges him: do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother. There is enough good in those commandments to keep anyone occupied for a lifetime.


Teacher…all these I have kept since I was a boy. Does his answer surprise you? Clearly he hadn’t heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or read Luther’s Small Catechism – because if he had, he would understand that murder, lust, theft, false witness, fraud, and insubordination live in every human heart. We all are guilty of all these things – even if we’ve never been convicted in a courtroom. Ignoring a neighbor in need is murder, and so is hatred and wishing someone dead. Adultery is a lustful look at anyone but your spouse. False witness is not just offered in the courtroom, it’s served up at the dinner table and spread on social media. Fraud is “forgetting” to scan an item at the self-checkout or filing a shady tax return. Honoring father and mother includes all other authorities, too – even if we don’t like them.


Jesus’ response is fascinating, isn’t it? Instead of showing this man the spiritual side of the Law, Mark says, Jesus looked at him and loved him. Yes, this is what love looks like. And, for someone who is blind to their sin and boldly speeding down the highway to hell, this is what love sounds like: One thing you lack…go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. Jesus aims right at the heart of this rich, young man. He looks into his heart the way only God can – and he sees a heart that is consumed with greed, enslaved by the idol of wealth. He sees someone who has failed to keep the 1st and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods. (Exodus 20:3)


Martin Luther explained the essence of the First Commandment like this: we should fear, love, and trust in God above all things. An idol is anything and everything we fear, love or trust more than God. The scary thing is that an idol doesn’t have to be a statue or live in a temple; most idols are invisible, they live in our hearts. Are there any idols living in your heart? A good test for idols is to assess your anxiety level. Someone once said that anxiety is the liturgy, the service, the sacrifice we offer to our idols when they inevitably fail to deliver. We fear the loss of youth, we love our riches, we trust our power to control not only our lives but the lives of others as well. And when they fail, we worry, we get anxious. And, in the sharp reversal that always comes from idolatry, the blame ends up falling on us instead of the idols. We fear death and so we worship the idol that promises the cure named Youth or Health. It involves religious devotion to exercise, to eating the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones!), to following doctor’s orders without question. But no matter how devoted we are – our bodies always end up breaking down and we all end up getting sick. And who’s to blame: you are! You didn’t serve your idol with the right diet, enough exercise, etc. We love Money because money seems to be able to buy happiness. But then we realize that the more stuff we have the more problems come with it or that we never have enough money to get what we want. And whose fault is it? Money doesn’t take the blame. It’s you. You didn’t buy the right thing, save enough, work hard enough. One of the most prevalent idols in our world is named Power. We strive for power and when we have it we think we can control our lives and the lives of those around us. But then we try it. Especially as parents and grandparents, we try to use our power to convince our families to do the right thing; for example, making worship a priority. But they ignore our pleas. They stubbornly despise the means of grace. And Power says that the problem is that you weren’t persuasive, passionate or convincing enough. It leaves us anxious and filled with worry. It exposes the idol living in our hearts.


Jesus loved this young man. He wanted to give him the one thing he lacked. What did he lack? It was not obedience or poverty or humility. What he lacked was faith. What he was missing was Jesus. What got in the way was his wealth and his power. And so Jesus comes up with the only possible cure: give it all away. Live up to the true spirit of the command to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31) by giving your wealth to those who need it more than you do. And understand, Jesus wasn’t saying that if he did, he would have earned eternal life for himself. No, Jesus used specific law to show this man that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. He was trying to lead this man to repentance – the surgical method that God uses to cut idols out of our hearts – because then he would be ready for the real answer.


Did you catch the real answer? It’s easy to miss. It’s just two words: follow me. The young man did. All he heard was Jesus’ command to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor – another commandment, more law – this time, law he hadn’t and couldn’t keep. But because his heart was still captive to greed, he missed the answer. I doubt that anyone here doesn’t realize that there is more to life than youth, power and riches. But sometimes we still miss the answer to life’s most important question, don’t we? There are still things that get in the way of hearing and heeding Jesus’ invitation to follow him to eternal life. What is it for you? Your pride? Your stuff? Your sin? Your personal convenience? Your job? What would Jesus say to you? What would he tell you to get rid of? Don’t doubt that Jesus loves you just as much as he loved that young man – what would he see in your heart that prevents you from following him? It could be anything. Our hearts are perfectly capable of turning anything, any good gift from God, into an idol. Whatever it is, don’t wait, repent; because no idol is worth sacrificing eternal life for.


Mark ends by telling us that the young man went away sad. Did he hear and believe? Did he go home and do what Jesus said? Did he look at all his stuff and say, “This isn’t worth it” and give it all away? Did he eventually repent and come back to Jesus and follow him all the way to the cross and the tomb to receive the inheritance of eternal life? We don’t know. And that’s a good thing, because it forces us to step into that young man’s sandals and ask “what would I do?”


To be clear, the lesson is not that money is evil or that rich people can’t be saved. The point is that no one, not even rich, young, powerful people – can earn eternal life. What that young man hopefully realized what that it wasn’t really his wealth but his determination to earn his way into heaven that was preventing him from getting there. The real good news is that while we can’t earn eternal life – Jesus can and Jesus did – and he wants to give it to us for free. Jesus calls to us, just as he did to that young man, to follow him to the cross, to the tomb, to his resurrection to receive the gift of eternal life he has earned for us. He issued that invitation first to us in his Baptism and he does it daily through his Word. And remember that to follow Jesus does not mean to keep his rules, to follow his example, to ask what would Jesus do – and then do it. To follow Jesus means to trust that he has kept all the rules for you, that he has satisfied his Father’s demand for a perfectly good life, that he has suffered the punishment for your idolatry and greed so that you never will, that he died so that you might have eternal life.


In the end, the young man was so close to eternal life. He was right: eternal life is an inheritance. It can’t be earned, it can only be freely given. And an heir is exactly what God made you in baptism. (Romans 8:17) A down payment on your heavenly inheritance – Jesus’ own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins – are exactly what is distributed to you from this altar. (Matthew 26:17-29) The narrow path through this world of idols to eternal life is what is mapped out for you in the Word of God – whenever you hear it, read it and meditate on it. Don’t ask what you can or must do to earn eternal life, instead believe that it is yours by grace (a gift) through faith (not by your doing) for Jesus’ sake. And anything that gets in the way of you receiving it – no matter what it is – simply has to go. Compared to the riches of heaven Jesus died to earn for you no idol is worth serving for even a minute. Don’t take my word for it, just ask that sad young man – or even better, ask Jesus and then follow him to life. Amen.

Mark 10:2-16 - God's Will According to Jesus - October 7, 2018

In the book of James we are told that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. (James 1:17) This refers to all good gifts given to all people. He makes the sun shine, the rain fall, the crops grow (Matthew 5:45), he gives life, talents and skills and homes and jobs and health to all people. One of the greatest evidences that God loves all people is that he blesses indiscriminately – even those who reject him and deny his very existence. But there is a difference; and the difference lies in how people receive these blessings. The believer joyfully receives these gifts from God, uses them according to his will, and thanks him for his goodness. The unbeliever refuses to acknowledge the giver of the gift, treats God’s gifts like he has earned and deserved them, and looks for excuses to misuse and abuse them. This is especially true regarding two of God’s most foundational and precious gifts: Marriage and Children. Today we consider Jesus’ own words regarding God’s will for our families.


Mark tells us outright that the Pharisees had come to Jesus with the express purpose of testing him – tricking him into a contradictory or false statement. So we know from the outset that the question is not an honest one. They are hoping that Jesus will either fall on the “liberal” side of the question of divorce – allowing divorce at any time for any reason, or on the “conservative” side – allowing only infidelity as a reason for divorce. They ask: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? This is the kind of question that should always set off alarm bells – “is it lawful”? It’s as if they were saying: “Can I get away with this?” Why are you asking? Have you been looking for an excuse to dump your wife? Are you trying to justify your past behavior? Why would you ever ask such a thing?


Jesus sets a perfect example for us by going back to Scripture and answers their question with a question: what did Moses command you? Jesus left them with a lot of material to sift through. Moses wrote what we call the Pentateuch: the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Rather than giving them the answer, he challenges the Pharisees to consult their own Biblical knowledge and come up with the verse themselves. Many passages in the Pentateuch speak about marriage – which would they choose? Not surprisingly, they choose the loophole, the exception, the one verse that seemed to accommodate their hard, disobedient hearts. Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.


The Pharisees did what the devil leads many people to do: rip a passage out of context, twist its meaning, and misuse it to justify their own sinful desires. If you read Deuteronomy 24 closely, you see that Moses’ civil law did not legalize divorce – it prevented frivolous divorces and protected the rights of the innocent party (in those days, usually those of the wife). (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) Because if a man sent his wife away – society would automatically assume that she had committed adultery – Moses demanded that the husband provide a certificate stating the real reason – thereby offering her, if she was innocent, protection from being stigmatized and allowing her to freely remarry. Even this was not God’s will, Jesus says, it was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law.


Jesus goes back to Genesis to explain God’s real intention and guidelines for his gift of marriage: at the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. Before the Fall; before there was sin; before Adam and Eve and their children had become self-absorbed, self-seeking, self-justifying rebels; before the concept of divorce even existed – God established these guidelines for his gift of marriage: one man, one woman, for life. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate. Back to the original question. Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No!!! They are one flesh joined by God himself and what God has done cannot be undone. Certainly, because of sin on the part of one or both spouses, divorce happens; because of neglect or abuse or infidelity; it may become a tragic and inevitable necessity; sin may shatter a marriage so completely that not even two baptized Christians can glue it back together – but it is never, ever, lawful. It is never, ever God’s will.  


That is how the Law of God always works. It never lets you off the hook. Even when it may appear to be accommodating, when it appears to offer a loophole for sinful desires – it loops right back around and strangles you. God’s law is perfect; there are no mistakes, no errors, no room for improvement. It will never provide excuses for ignoring his will, never provide comfort for those who break it, never provide justification for sinful behavior. It always kills. Always accuses. Always condemns.


The disciples were bothered by this, possibly feeling guilty themselves, and so they ask Jesus about this behind closed doors. But Jesus doesn’t back off. Instead, he presses even harder. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. Jesus, God’s only, holy, righteous Son, sews the last loophole shut. Getting a divorce with the intention of marrying someone else is nothing but adultery. A legal document doesn’t make it lawful in God’s eyes. Because his will in the Garden of Eden is still his will for people today: what God has joined together, let man not separate. We even make that part of our vows, right? “As long as we both shall live.” Not “as long as we both shall love,” “as long as we both are happy.” Death, not divorce, is the way God ends the union of husband and wife. Anything else is sinful.


Now some of us might think we’ve dodged a bullet in this sermon. “I’ve never been divorced,” “I’ve never remarried,” “I’ve never had an affair – in fact, right now at least, I’m pretty content in my marriage.” Before you imagine that the 6th commandment doesn’t apply to you, remember that Jesus also said I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:28) Paul said wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. (Ephesians 5:22, 25) God also commanded, right at the very beginning of time, that according to his will a man will leave his father and mother – that is, a couple will make their commitment public and will fulfill any requirements of the government BEFORE they begin to live together as one flesh. (Genesis 2:24) No one here has obeyed the 6th commandment perfectly. Maybe now it’s beginning to sink in how terrifying God’s Law really is. Standing in front of God’s Law is like standing in a room where all the walls are closing in. God’s law is a hammer that crushes even the hardest of sinful hearts. (Jeremiah 23:29) It leaves no room for loopholes, excuses, or self-justification. By it, no one will be declared righteous…rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20) And so a secondary lesson is that we should not go around asking questions like is it lawful, because if you have to ask, you already know the answer, and the Law is not going to help you.


Is there any good news today? Yes! In Ephesians chapter 5, Paul quotes God’s institution of marriage from Genesis and applies it in a remarkable way: this is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32) This whole discussion about marriage is not, in the end, about us working to make our marriages perfect – it’s about the only perfect marriage: between Christ and his bride, the Church. Christ is the one who left his Father and mother at the cross – he was forsaken by his Father and gave his mother to John (Matthew 27:46; John 19:26-27) – to be united to us – through the blood and water that flowed from his head and hands and feet and side. (Ephesians 5:25-27) We could spend weeks studying marriage and tips and tricks for a successful marriage – but we won’t, because, in our hands, marriage cannot, ever, save us. But there is a marriage that does save. There is one union that cannot be broken – not by sin or death or divorce (Romans 8:39). It’s the marriage of Christ and his Church. Christ proposed to you in Baptism, when he sealed you with his name and his blood. In his holy supper he comes to you again and again and again to tell you how much he loves you – to the point of dying for you to forgive your sins. All of Scripture is his love song to you – assuring you that you are precious to him and that he is preparing a home for you in heaven. So if you fear God’s wrath over how you’ve handled marriage in the past, don’t look to the Law for justification – look to Christ. Bring all of your sins and abuses, all of your lust and hardness of heart – bring it here, lay it at Jesus’ feet and trust that he has taken it all away – leaving you without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:27)


Our Gospel ends with little children. That’s fitting since children always, always, always wind up getting hurt the most by the sin of divorce. Parents were bringing their children to Jesus so that he could bless them. But the disciples rebuked them – the parents – for bothering Jesus and for the noise, distraction, and (possibly) the mess their children were making. From the disciples’ perspective, what value did children have for Jesus and his kingdom? How could they support or advance his mission of achieving earthly power and glory? Still today some resent the presence of children in God’s house – seeing them as nothing more than a distraction, a nuisance, a drain on resources who need more time and effort than they are worth.


That’s not how Jesus sees them. He was indignant. He lashed out at his disciples: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Who would Jesus rebuke for keeping his children away from him today? Do we parents understand that they aren’t really our children, they belong to God – who has commanded us – especially us fathers – to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord? (Ephesians 6:4) More importantly, do we understand why Jesus commands us to bring his children to him? He loves them, he wants to feed them with his Word, forgive their sins, bless them and save them. Why would anyone want to prevent Jesus from doing so? Only someone whose heart is filled with unbelief that would look for loopholes, excuses and justification to keep children from Jesus.


And there’s a big, important lesson for us in those little, insignificant children. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. In this whole section, the only ones who Jesus doesn’t reprimand and scold, the only ones who he freely welcomes, the only ones who come to Jesus having nothing to offer – are the little children. Not the Pharisees. Not the disciples. The babies. They are the perfect picture of what it means to believe and receive the kingdom of God. Not because they’re sinless or “innocent” (they’re not, they’re born guilty – Psalm 51:5). It’s that they realize their helplessness, don’t presume to do or give anything to Jesus, and are content to receive everything as good gifts from him. Only when we give up all our attempts to please God by our own works – and stop searching for ways to justify ourselves – and instead, receive Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation like little children will God welcome us into his kingdom.


May we all be like little children. May we always recognize that God is the giver of every good thing, joyfully accept the gifts he gives us and use them according to his will. Especially his gifts of marriage and children. Amen.

Revelation 12:7-12 - The War Behind All Other Wars - September 30, 2018

Shortly before Jesus was betrayed, arrested and crucified, he described what the world would be like after he left and before he returns – the world we live in today. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Among other horrors, he predicted that wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6) will be omnipresent until he returns. And so, for all of the treaties and diplomacy and peace marches – the only world we know is a world at war. World War I claimed the lives of some 37 million people – and it was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Only twenty years later, over 50 million people were killed in World War II. Since then the world has witnessed the horrors of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam, Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a war on terror that rages on all around us – from airports and grade schools to the internet. Jesus was right, ours is a world at war.


And that’s not even the worst of it. Some of the most bitter wars are those that rage in our homes and offices and families. Jesus warned us about those wars too! He said that the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). Have you felt the chill? Husbands and wives carry on civil wars behind closed doors. Children lead rebellions against their parents. Coworkers undermine each other until cubical walls begin to feel like the Berlin wall. And even here, in the church, the Shepherd’s sheep tear and claw at one another. And then there’s the battlefield that no one else can see. We try our best to hide it. We dress in our Sunday best and plaster a big smile on our faces and when someone asks “How are you?” We all answer “good” or “great.” But underneath the smiles, within the confines of our hearts, secret wars are raging. Secret wars with addiction, depression, doubt, anxiety, worry, sin and guilt and shame and fear – and sometimes even unbelief. These private, personal, hidden wars are perhaps the most painful, because they can drag on for a lifetime and we may think that no one knows, no one cares, and no one can help.


The fact is that behind every one of these wars stands a far greater war; the war that causes and incites all other wars. It is the war of heaven. The war between God and Satan which finds its battleground in our world, our homes and our hearts. We will not be able to understand or comprehend all those other wars unless we understand this one, the war behind all wars: the enemies, the allies, and the outcome.


The Apostle John serves as the battlefield reporter: And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back…the great dragon was hurled down – that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him…for the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down…but woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. Who is enemy number one today? Hassan Rouhani – the president of Iran? Vladimir Putin? Militant Islam? Crime or poverty or inequality or global warming? Republicans or Democrats? Who is our worst enemy? The Bible is clear: our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil. (Ephesians 6:12) Enemy number one is the devil.  


Is that always how we think of him? I know that no one reads newspapers anymore, but when we did, we could see the devil depicted quite regularly on the comic page. What did he look like? A creepy looking guy with horns wearing red pajamas and carrying a pitchfork, right? No someone you would take seriously – and that’s just what the devil wants. But don’t fall for it. Instead, listen to the Bible’s damning profile of this murderer, terrorist, and liar: the great dragon…that ancient serpent…the devil (which means “accuser”) Satan (which means “adversary”) who leads the whole world astray…and accuses [us] before God day and night. (If you’ve heard the slanderous accusations made against a certain Supreme Court nominee this past week, you have an idea of the nature of the devil’s work.) The devil is not some comical character, he is a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) He wants you. He wants your soul. He is dead-set on destroying your marriage, your family, your faith. He knows he’s beaten, but is so blinded by rage that he wants to drag as many people to hell with him as he can.


This is the real war behind all other wars. He’s behind the war on the unborn that has been raging since 1973; he cackles with glee that over 60 million babies have never had the chance to hear the Gospel or be baptized. [1] (And make no mistake, anyone who thinks that the decision to murder is a woman’s choice has blood on their hands, too!) He’s behind every grade school, high school, and university teacher who sees our children – who believe in the Bible’s account of creation – as easy targets for mockery and humiliation. (And yet, we continue to send them out into public schools, like lambs to be slaughtered.) He’s behind every false doctrine that compromises God’s truth to be more compatible with modern culture. He’s behind every argument at home, hoping to plant a landmine that will blow up another marriage. Behind every pang of guilt and shame stands the devil pointing a long finger right at us: “See God! Look at him, look at her – look at what they’ve thought, said and done; they deserve hell, just like me!” Forget the red pajamas and the pitch fork. The devil and his demons are enemy number one – awful enemies, and awfully good at what they do.


The Good News is that God is even better at what he does. While nothing is more terrifying than considering the power and work of our enemies, there is nothing more comforting than hearing about our allies. And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven…Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them night and day has been hurled down.”


Our ally is no less than God himself. The Son of God went head to head with the devil and won, bringing salvation, power and authority to all who believe. As good as the devil is at tempting us to sin and then turning around and making us feel guilty for the very thing he led us to do – Jesus is even better at forgiving our sin and soothing our aching hearts with the good news that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) That’s salvation. If it seems like the devil has taken control the minds and hearts of Hollywood, Washington D.C., and American culture – rest assured that Christ is even better at ruling heaven and earth for the good of his people, for the good of the Church. (Ephesians 1:22-23) That’s almighty power. If the devil is good at leading unwitting and unwilling people to carry out his dirty work of spreading death and destruction, Jesus is even better at equipping and sending out his people with his Good News to accomplish his saving work. He says in Matthew: All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:18-20) And we witnessed Christ bring all of his power and authority to bear as he brought another soul – the soul of Joseph Rudolph – out of the devil’s dominion and into his Kingdom through Holy Baptism.


I know it doesn’t seem like much…a few words and a handful of water. They certainly don’t seem like the preferred tools of war. But behind those words and that water stands the work of Christ – the special agent God sent to destroy the devil’s work. He won by appearing to suffer defeat. He lowered himself below the angels (Hebrews 2:7-9) to be born, disguised as in human flesh, in a barn in Bethlehem. He faced off against the devil in the wilderness where he suffered brutal temptations to doubt God’s goodness, to test God’s promises, to circumvent God’s plan – but remained perfect, undefeated. (Matthew 4:1-11) The devil summoned all the powers of hell, sending powerful politicians, faithless friends, and a traitorous disciple against God’s Son – but nothing could deter him from achieving his goal: paying for our sins by suffering and dying on the cross. To all the world it seemed as if the devil had won on Calvary: Jesus’ message had been rejected and his own people crucified him! But three days later Jesus turned the tables when he emerged from the grave alive! Through the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – our sins have been taken away; our death has been defeated; the devil’s power over us has been destroyed. He has been hurled from heaven along with all of his accusations against us.


And now that Christ has won the war, he sends his soldiers to help us wage our own battles with the enemy. They are the angelic armies of heaven led by the archangel Michael. Again, pop-culture has created the false image of angels as pudgy little kids wearing halos and carrying little bows and arrows with nothing better to do than lead people to fall in love. But don’t be fooled by the world’s spin. There’s good reason every time angels appear to people the very first thing they say is don’t be afraid. (Luke 1:30) The angels are holy, sinless creatures of God who shout his praises in heaven’s throne room. They served as God’s messengers at key points in salvation history (Christmas, Easter, Ascension). Angels are God’s Special Forces who protect his defenseless people – especially defenseless children like Joseph – from the devil’s physical and spiritual attacks. Specifically this morning we hear that when Jesus crushed the devil’s skull on the cross, Michael and his army hurled the devil and his demons out of heaven.


Which means that the outcome is sure. The devil is defeated. Listen again to heaven’s song of victory: They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. The blood of the Lamb has taken away our sin and broken the power of the devil. This is not to say that the devil hasn’t won some battles in our lives, that we each haven’t given surrendered to his temptations, that we all have plenty of skeletons in our closets. And to be perfectly honest, if the war was up to us, we would have lost our souls to hell a long time ago. But that’s exactly what cannot happen to us because of Christ. In him we have total forgiveness, full forgiveness, free forgiveness. Poured out on each one of us – like that handful of water on Joseph – through the blood of the Lamb. Let the devil do his worst, let him tempt and accuse us – because we have John’s words: my dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)


As Jesus said in our Gospel (Luke 10:17-20), every time this good news is proclaimed, the devil’s power is broken and his pitiful little kingdom takes a pounding. Right here and right now the devil is being defeated yet again. Really? Yes! They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. That testimony is the Gospel. It is the good news of free forgiveness in Christ. There is no more powerful weapon in the universe – because faith comes from hearing this message, and where there is faith the devil is powerless. Faith is bulletproof body armor against every last one of the devil’s attacks. Every time a sinner is baptized – the devil loses a subject. Every time the Word is preached and taught – the devil’s lies are exposed. Every time you pray, read a devotion, forgive and receive forgiveness at home, the devil must flee with his tail between his legs. (James 4:7) Every prayer that we lay before God’s almighty throne and every hymn we sing of Jesus’ victory slams the gate of hell in the devil’s face.


Yes, our world is filled with wars – national, political, personal – but never forget that this is the war behind all other wars. As awful as the enemies are, our allies are all-powerful and the outcome is certain. Jesus has crushed the devil and Michael and his angelic armies continue to defend us so that even in this world of war we have nothing to fear – because in Christ we have salvation, victory and peace. Amen.  


Mark 9:30-37 - Christianity Is Only for Losers - September 23, 2018

He launched the world’s first 24 hour cable news network: CNN. His net worth is over 2 billion dollars. In 1991, he was declared Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.” He has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of fame, a book that made the New York Times best-sellers list and a World Series champion baseball team. He was fishing buddies with former president Jimmy Carter and dated movie star Jane Fonda. In the minds of many, Ted Turner represents the ideal of the successful, victorious life that many people spend their whole lives trying to achieve. But what is less known about Ted Turner is that as a child he dreamed of being a missionary – that is, until his little sister, Mary Jean, contracted a rare form of lupus at the age of ten which left her with brain damage and screaming in pain until the day she died. Turner directed his grief and anger at God and the Christian faith – which he claimed couldn’t give him satisfactory answers to why his “innocent” [1] sister had to suffer and die at such a young age. All of which led him to later make the comment that “Christianity is a religion for losers.” [2] Now, you might be tempted to bristle and resent Ted Turner’s low assessment of us and our faith. Don’t. Today our Lord teaches us to embrace Turner’s assessment and to go even a step further: to understand that Christianity is only for losers; the one who lost everything for us invites us to lose everything for him.


We meet the disciples in a moment when all their visions for glory, victory, and success seem to be coming together. They had just come down from the Mt. of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) where Jesus had given a glimpse of his divine glory to Peter, James, and John. It appears that the disciples saw this display of glory as a shadow of things to come: when Jesus marched into Jerusalem, kicked out the hated Romans, and began his rightful rule as Israel’s Messiah – with his twelve closest friends, of course, getting their share of the glory. But Jesus had a different plan in mind. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.


The disciples didn’t get it and they were afraid to even ask him about it. Why? Well, if they asked him to explain and he confirmed that he was going to die, they would have to give up their dreams of power and glory. And it’s hard to blame them, isn’t it? They gave up their livelihoods and their lives to follow Jesus. He seemed like the real deal, the long-promised Messiah – he looked like a winner. He had the teaching and the miracles to back him up. He was so popular that they had to go to the backwoods of Galilee to get away from the crowds. Jesus’ whole campaign seemed to be growing and gaining momentum: the deaf hear, the mute speak, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, demons are cast out, the dead are raised. (Matthew 11:5-6) Jesus seemed to be a walking, talking, miracle-working definition of greatness. But then he goes and starts talking about crazy things: being handed over, killed and rising from the dead. This was not the talk of a winner. This is not what you would expect to hear from the Messiah who ought to be preparing to rule as Israel’s king. It was so unexpected and so irrational that the disciples try their best to ignore it. Besides, they had better things to talk about – things like which of them would be chief of staff in Jesus’ cabinet.


Why such blindness and deafness to Jesus’ mission and message? Why, after Jesus had told them a second time that when he went to Jerusalem it wasn’t to be crowned but to be crucified, did they still not believe it? Because that’s how they were wired. In fact, that’s how we are all wired. We are wired from birth to desire and strive for success and power and glory. It doesn’t take children long to understand that school isn’t as much about learning as it is defining who is tallest, fastest and most popular. It’s why there are no high school awards for the least likely to succeed and no trophies for least valuable player. It’s why we give our children the best opportunities, the best education, the best of everything – because we expect that when we do, they will be successful. (Even though experience teaches otherwise.) The entire Christian faith revolves around Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) and yet, more often than not, and especially when trials and troubles come, we don’t want to hear about a Jesus who died for our sins and rose again for our salvation – we want a Jesus of power and glory; who can fix our problems with a word, who can heal us, give us glory – now, make us winners – now. But that’s not the Gospel. That’s what Ted Turner didn’t understand. It’s why the Gospel doesn’t appeal to those who think they deserve to be winners. Who wants to wake up on Sunday morning to come to church only to confess that you’re a poor, miserable, wretched loser in need of forgiveness? (That’s why it’s no surprise that the most popular religions and corrupted forms of Christianity are based on winning, not losing; on a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross.)


But the cross, suffering and death are precisely Jesus’ mission and message. Not power but weakness. Not a crown but a cross. Not glory in winning, but glory in losing – losing it all in order to gain it all: losing his life in order to save ours. Jesus certainly could have walked into Jerusalem and – with twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53) – have crushed the Roman occupiers and assumed the throne. He certainly could have caused his enemies to suffer the same fate that they had planned for him – he proved his power in the Garden of Gethsemane. (John 18:5-6) Jesus could have stayed in heaven where he ruled all things at his Father’s right hand – he didn’t have to suffer the indignity of being born as the child of a teenage peasant, he didn’t have to suffer the perpetual attacks of Satan and the hostility of the very people he came to save, he didn’t have to be a homeless wanderer on this earth for 33 years, he didn’t have to willingly walk directly from the mountain where he demonstrated his glory to a hill outside Jerusalem where he would be stripped naked, nailed to a cross and killed. Actually, he did. Because we were born losers in God’s eyes. Because God created us to love him and serve others – and what we love most is ourselves and having others serve us. Because heaven is reserved only for those who win in God’s eyes – those who are perfectly obedient, perfectly trusting, perfectly loving – and we were disqualified from birth. Because we were the ones who deserved to lose our souls forever in hell, Jesus took our place, he became a loser for us, he submitted to his Father’s plan that required him to lose everything – in order to save us.


And now, the world’s biggest loser invites us to imitate his example. He gathers his proud, glory-seeking disciples around him and says: If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. Notice, Jesus doesn’t crush their ambition to be the greatest in his kingdom – but he does blow up their idea of greatness. Rather than defining greatness as having the most people serve you, Jesus defines the greatest as those who serve the most. To punctuate his point he picks up a child. “You want to be great in my kingdom? Here. Get off your high horses, step down from your imaginary thrones, bend down and serve this child – because when you do, you will not only be receiving me, but the one – my Father – who sent me.”


I’m not sure that the full impact of this action resonates in the 21st century. Today, we tend to idolize childhood, we glamorize it, and prolong it. This is a children’s world – and the rest of us are just living in it. Children need to be coddled, listened to, understood, encouraged to make their own decisions, to be spoiled and pampered and shielded from disappointment. If they don’t like supper, we make them something they do like. If their team doesn’t win, they still get a ribbon. If little Stevie decides he wants to be a Suzy – who are we to argue? But it wasn’t always that way – especially not in Jesus’ day. Children had no rights or privileges, they were under the absolute authority of their fathers. They were seen as a drain on the family resources and couldn’t grow up quickly enough to be married off – for a girl; or put to work – for a boy.


Which is why it would have been so shocking to the disciples that Jesus not only acknowledged a good-for-nothing little child – but even pick him up and use him as an object lesson. Jesus is saying that if you want to be great in my kingdom – you must bend over and receive me just like you would receive this – for all practical purposes “useless” – little child. The only way to receive me is to receive me not as the world’s greatest winner – who promises nothing but glory and success to his followers; but as God’s Son who was born in a dirty manger, as a man of sorrows and a cross, as a servant who dies to save his enemies. Do you want to be great in God’s eyes? You must humble yourself and believe that the Jesus you need most is not a glorious, empowering, spiritual guru – but a lowly servant who suffered and died for your sins.


Do you see the relationship between welcoming Jesus like a little child and serving little children – in other words, the relationship between faith and love? You must first become nothing and throw yourself fully on God’s grace in Christ – forget everything you’ve done, contributed, earned, deserved and instead cry out “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” and fall into his loving arms. Because only when you’ve come to the realization that Jesus lost everything to save a loser like you – can you understand how the last can be first and the greatest in God’s kingdom are the servants.


Perhaps a few examples would be helpful. Greatness in God’s eyes in found in those little acts of love that no one notices. Greatness is found in the mother whose work around the house is only noticed when it’s not done. Greatness is found in a father who takes the time to teach his children not only to ride a bike and throw a football, but to thank God for their food, to read the Bible with them, to pray with them. It’s found in parents who lose career advancement and new cars and breathtaking vacations to give their children a full-time Christian education. Greatness is found in grandparents who demonstrate in word and action that greatness is not defined by personal achievement but by humble service. Greatness is found in people quietly contributing – without any expectation of public recognition – to build a place for God’s Word to be taught to people they don’t know and may never meet. Greatness is found in visiting those who are sick and suffering. Greatness is found in acknowledging and befriending the “losers” at work and school. Greatness is found in seeing something that needs to be done – and doing it; instead of running to tell someone else to take care of it. In short, greatness is found in doing the things that the world would say makes you a loser.


The concrete evidence that this is greatness in God’s eyes becomes clear when we remember that one day all people will experience the greatest loss of all. The sad fact is that our lives end much the same way they began. We become children again – not really very useful and completely dependent on others. No matter how great we once were, no matter how much wealth we accumulated, how many degrees we earned, how many awards or memorials were given to our honor, no matter how many people we lead or employed – we once again become helpless, relatively useless children. Even the first must become last, eventually. And while most people try their hardest to avoid it, that’s exactly what Christians are aiming for: we are aiming for death, to lose our life, to follow the biggest loser of all – Jesus – through the grave to resurrection to true, eternal, never-ending victory in heaven.


And so when you hear someone like Ted Turner call you a loser, don’t get offended, don’t get defensive, don’t get angry. Instead, thank him. Thank him for the reminder that Christianity is only for losers. We trust and follow Jesus Christ who lost everything for us – and who invites us to lose everything for him. Welcome that little child of Bethlehem with child-like faith and seek out the “children” you can serve in this world. That’s winning in God’s eyes. Amen.  

[1] Psalm 51:5 teaches that all people are sinful, not innocent, from conception


1 Corinthians 3:10-15 - Keep Building - September 16, 2018

Back then, a gallon of gas cost just over a dollar. The average home cost just over $150,000. Titanic won Best Picture and became the first movie to gross $1 billion. The “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty to planting bombs and sowing terror throughout the country. Bill Clinton became just the second President in history to be impeached. And last, but not least, a little company with the funny name of “google” was founded in Menlo Park, California. In the midst of it all, in one little corner of Wisconsin, God was busy working on something that didn’t generate national headlines, that didn’t make the cover of TIME, that went unnoticed by all but a handful of people. On September 13, 1998, God led a small group of Christians – 15 or so – to a grade school gym, to the very first worship service of Risen Savior Lutheran Church. A lot has changed in 20 years, but one thing – the most important thing – has not: God is still working here to lead desperate sinners to saving faith in Christ, he is still building his church – and through the Apostle Paul he encourages us to keep building, on the proper foundation, with the proper materials.


Paul is generally considered to be the most prolific and productive of the Apostles. He wrote 13 books of the NT and established over a dozen churches. His letters detail how he suffered beatings, imprisonment, riots (2 Corinthians 6:4-10), how he was whipped, stoned, and shipwrecked; how he endured sleepless nights and starvation for the sake of the Gospel. (2 Corinthians 11:23-29) Humanly speaking, no one deserves more credit for establishing and spreading the church than Paul. And yet, who does Paul give the credit to? By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. Paul recognized that it was only the result of God’s grace that he was privileged to suffer, strive, and sweat to establish the Gospel throughout the ancient world. Paul no doubt remembered that before Jesus knocked him off his feet on the road to Damascus he was no Christian hero, he was a murderer of Christians (Acts 9) – and even worse, his self-righteous spirit was earning him an eternity in hell. But Jesus turned his life around – turning him from someone who trusted his own works to someone who trusted God’s grace; from someone who persecuted the Gospel to the greatest Christian missionary in history. Paul knew full well that it was only God’s grace that gave him a role in building the Church and to suffer and sacrifice for the Gospel.


The question is: do we always realize that? On an occasion like this, it’s so tempting to imagine that this congregation is built on our hard work, our offerings, our effort. We each have an ego, and we like to stroke that ego by coming up with a pretty impressive list of all that we’ve done for God and the church. “This church wouldn’t be here if I didn’t leave the comfort of my home church and start worshipping in a gym; the bills wouldn’t get paid if I didn’t frequently and generously open up my wallet; there would be a lot more empty seats if I hadn’t chosen this church out of all the available options; this place wouldn’t still be standing if it wasn’t for the time I’ve spent mowing, shoveling, cleaning, organizing, baking, teaching, preaching, giving, praying, etc.”


The truth is, if it wasn’t for the grace of God, not only would we not have the privilege of doing those things, we too would be on the fast track to hell. Because for all of the offerings we have given cheerfully and generously, how often have we given only reluctantly or only the leftovers? For all of the time we have spent here listening to the Gospel, how much more time have we wasted chasing after worldly pleasure? For the many times we have boldly confessed the Christian faith within the safety of these walls, how often have we kept silent when given the opportunity to speak the truth or, even worse, have denied the truth? In spite of all that Paul did and accomplished for the Church, he called himself the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:16) and less than the least of all God’s people (Ephesians 3:8) Can we confess anything less? If even our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) – to say nothing of our sins – what business do we have claiming any credit for establishing, sustaining or growing Risen Savior? For us and for Paul, it is only by God’s grace that we are privileged to participate in the building of the Church. (1 Corinthians 15:10)


But if we don’t get the credit for building Risen Savior, who does? For no one can lay a foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Long before we were ever born, long before Paul had ever stepped foot in Corinth, Jesus Christ laid the foundation of the Church by his life, death and resurrection. The Church is not built on our blood, sweat and tears, but on the tears Jesus shed as he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4), on the sweat that poured from Jesus’ face as the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6), on the blood that spilled from his side as he gave up his life to pay for our sins. Most of all, the Church is firmly founded on the fact that Jesus rose from the grave – hard evidence that our sins are paid for, that we are right with God. There is only one foundation for the Christian Church – that is, Christ himself.


Perhaps that seems obvious. We just sang “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” (CW 538) But the fact that Paul had to write these words proves that this is not obvious to everyone. The danger is not really trying to replace the foundation of Jesus Christ – obviously, if a church stops confessing Christ, it has ceased to be the Church. The real danger trying to establish another, a second foundation alongside Jesus. This happens whenever people fail to trust that the Word will accomplish exactly what God promised it would (Isaiah 55:10-11) and substitute their own wisdom and reason, whenever we think that the Gospel needs some dressing up or modification or some special marketing campaign to make it attractive – as if anything we could offer is better than the free forgiveness of sins.


Which is why we aren’t celebrating our 20th anniversary by acknowledging the human effort that went into establishing Risen Savior (even though it was significant), but by thanking God that the church is not built on or by us. We thank him for planning our salvation even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4); for making and keeping his promise to send a Savior from sin; for using men like Paul to spread this good news throughout the ancient world; for giving us parents and grandparents who brought us to be baptized and fed at Jesus’ feet; for pastors like Dan Sims, Oliver Lindholm and Nathan Fager who faithfully preached nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God; and, most of all, for the Holy Spirit who sanctifies all of our imperfect efforts and to this day attaches the power of salvation to simple things like water, bread, wine and the Word. (Romans 1:16) If this church was built on our own effort or ingenuity, it would have crumbled long ago. It’s a testimony to God’s grace that even as the past two decades have seen our nation, many of our nation’s churches, and even many of our family and friends walk away from Christ – God has kept Risen Savior grounded on the only foundation that can withstand the storms of sin and Satan: Christ crucified.


Speaking of storms, I’m sure we’ve all seen pictures and video of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Florence on North and South Carolina. Cars and homes and entire communities were all swept away by the wind and waves. It’s interesting, though, that when the waters finally recede, for the most part, the foundations will still be standing. Why? Because the foundation was built of solid, indestructible concrete while the structure above was built of cheaper and lighter 2x4’s, drywall and plaster. Paul uses a similar image in describing the church: If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. Even though Paul doesn’t define these different materials, we immediately notice that they fall into two groups: three that are non-combustible (they don’t burn up in fire), and three that are combustible. People living in the 1st century would have appreciated Paul’s illustration. When a fire swept through an ancient city, the only thing left standing might be a temple or palace built of costly stones, gold and silver. We get the point, right? As we build on the foundation of Christ, we have a choice: build with proper, precious materials that will last or build with the easy, cheap materials that won’t. While there may seem to be no visible difference between churches that build with precious materials and those that build with worthless ones (it might even seem like those that build with worthless materials grow bigger, faster), Paul says that one day it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.


Paul’s words should be a wake-up call to every church – even ours. Satan is always tempting us to build with materials other than those God has given us. There’s always the temptation to think that if we just provide the services and programs that people in our community want: day care, rent assistance, children’s programs, marriage and financial workshops – that then we can slip the Gospel in without them even noticing and the church will really grow. But not only is that deceptive and manipulative (and therefore incompatible with the Gospel – 2 Corinthians 4:2), but Jesus and the Apostles regularly told people that they would not provide for their bodily needs, but what they could give them was far more important: the forgiveness of sins. (John 6:27; Acts 3:6) We might be tempted to modify the more controversial teachings of the Bible to make them fit contemporary society – the roles of men and women, gender identity and sexuality, closed communion, fellowship – but Revelation 22 warns if anyone takes words away from this book…God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city. (Revelation 22:19) We may be tempted to think that it’s the persuasiveness of the pastor, the friendliness of the people, or the quality of the snacks that converts unbelievers – but Scripture is clear that faith comes from hearing the message. (Romans 10:17)


The church is not founded on or by us, nor is it built by our wisdom, methods or strategies. The Church is founded on Christ and still today the only proper materials to build on that foundation are what we call the “means of grace.” To the credit of those who were members back in 2010, they decided to place those building blocks front and center in the very design of the church. The pulpit where the Word is proclaimed, the altar where the body and blood of Christ are distributed, the font where sinners become saints – those are the priceless building materials that Christ uses to build his Church. No, they’re not as flashy or exciting as a superstar pastor or a professional praise band, it takes far more effort and patience to use them than the latest, greatest marketing scheme, and many in our world have absolutely no use for them - but it is only through these means that God shines his truth in this dark world, creates and strengthens faith, and makes new and stronger believers. Let us never take them for granted. Let us never abandon them for any poor imitations that promises quicker results or seems to be more acceptable to the world – because the true test is not whether what we teach and do grows the church now, but whether it will stand up to the fire of God’s judgment on the Last Day. Remember that 20 years ago Risen Savior started in a grade school gym by 15 people with little more than a Bible, some water, some bread and wine and Christ’s promise that where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:20) – and that when we look around today, we see evidence that by God’s grace the proper building materials – the Word and Sacraments – do work.


It’s been 20 years since Risen Savior’s first worship service, and a lot has changed. Hundreds of homes have replaced corn fields. A beautiful, permanent sanctuary has replaced worship in a gym. 15 members has grown to almost 150. We have more children who want to learn about Jesus than we have room to teach them. Only eight years after building a church, an expansion is already in the works. Founding members have died and been transferred to heaven and new ones have become children of God right before our eyes. A lot has changed. But the most important things have not. By God’s grace Risen Savior is still standing on the only foundation laid by God himself: Jesus Christ. Even in our ever-changing world God has preserved here the pure teaching of his Word and the Sacraments – the only building materials that will stand the tests of time and Judgment. In our Risen Savior we have a solid foundation and building materials that will stand the test of time and eternity. May God in his grace lead us to keep building on the proper foundation with the proper materials for the next 20 years. Amen.    

1 Peter 1:3-5 - Eternal Life, Guaranteed - September 9, 2018

If you were to stop in a Christian book store (if any still exist) or browse any number of online book sellers on the topic of the resurrection of the body or the life everlasting – you would find hundreds of books claiming to tell you everything you ever wanted to know. There are books that explain what it feels like to die and to experience the presence and glory of God – from those who have allegedly had near-death experiences. There are books that describe what God, what the angels, and what heaven itself looks like. There are books that talk about if and how you will be able to recognize Abraham and Moses and even great uncle Charlie. When it comes to the Last Day, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting – there is no shortage of books that claim to explain, define, and describe what it’s like down to the smallest detail. The funny thing is, the Bible is NOT one of them. Now certainly, the Bible gives descriptions of heaven: as a royal banquet (Luke 13), a mansion with many rooms (John 14), the saints gathered around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 14), the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). But on the whole, the Bible makes it clear that God is more concerned with leading us to know and believe that through Christ eternal life is ours than he is about satisfying our thirst for details. Today the Apostle Peter assures us that even if we don’t know exactly what heaven will be like, it is guaranteed to us by God. A proven, permanent and powerful guarantee.


Peter originally wrote this letter to people a lot like us – in verse 1 he addressed it to God’s elect, strangers in the world. (1:1) He wrote this letter to Christians living in societies that were at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to Christianity. Much like today, the hostility wasn’t necessarily physical violence (although it did happen) but more along the lines of social harassment. Their faith was openly mocked and made fun of. They were alienated and bullied by their coworkers, friends, and sometimes even their own families. They were living in a world that loved darkness instead of the light (John 3:19), where the love of most had grown cold (Matthew 24:12), where people were not ashamed of their immoral behavior but paraded it about in broad daylight. Peter knew that the temptation was very real for these Christians to question whether holding onto this faith was really worth it; when the unbelieving world seemed happy and successful and believers were losing their jobs, their friends, and even their families. So right away in this letter, Peter reinforces their faith and restores their hope – not by promising them that life in this world would get better, but by assuring them that their eternal future is secure.


To be clear, left to ourselves, we would have no eternal future. In fact, when we were born, we were utterly hopeless. We were born into a world that had fallen under the curse of sin and death (Genesis 3); from our first breath we were doomed to die (1 Corinthians 2:22) and destined to spend all eternity separated from God in hell (Romans 2:6-8; Colossians 3:5-6). That’s why, when these Christians were struggling with persecution and trials of faith, Peter doesn’t point them to themselves or their works or their strength – instead, he points them to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!


What has God done? In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He has given life to the lifeless and hope to the hopeless. He has given us a new birth – in contrast to our natural birth – into a living hope. How did this new birth take place? Peter says later in this chapter: you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:23) And later on in the book baptism now saves you...not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. (1 Peter 3:21) Through the Word and through Baptism God gives us a new birth into his family, into the Christian faith, into a living hope for eternal life.


But it’s the basis for this living hope that sets Christianity apart. Because, in one way or another, nearly every human – and every religion – cling to some kind of hope for the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, modern-day Jews and Buddhists and Muslims – all teach about life after death. Even the unbelieving world has hope, right? Hope that the right combination of diet and exercise can prevent death; hope for a cure for cancer, a pill that can reverse aging, etc. (Which is not surprising, because Solomon wrote: [God] has set eternity in the hearts of men. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)) But without exception, these religions teach that eternal life depends on whether you have earned it or not. Jews believe that circumcision and obedience to the law will earn them a happy eternity; Muslims base it on following the 5 pillars of the Koran; Hindus base it on whether you had good or bad karma during your lifetime. These are not living hopes, they are dead hopes. And on the Day of Judgment these will prove to be false hopes, hopes that lead only to destruction. Because Jesus will judge them according to the standard they demand: those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:29) [1]


In contrast, the living hope of Christianity is not based on us at all. It is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hope is living because our Savior is living. Our hope is true because it is grounded in the historical, verifiable fact that Jesus died on a cross just outside of Jerusalem and three days later rose again, leaving an empty grave. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, therefore, is the basis, the ground, the assurance and foundation for our living hope of eternal life. Because he lives, we too shall live. (John 14:19; 15:26) Our hope for eternal life is guaranteed; proven in the empty tomb.


But what is this eternal life? Peter describes it as an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade away – kept in heaven for you. An inheritance is what is distributed when a person dies. The heirs often place a lot of hope in receiving an inheritance – hope that it will get them out of debt or give them a better life. But what often ends up happening? Disputes between family members break out, lawyers get involved, property and possessions lose value, and a good portion of whatever is left goes to the government in taxes. Even if you have the prospect of receiving a large inheritance from a relative – there’s always the chance that you will never see it, or will only see a portion of it. But the same is not true of our heavenly inheritance. It is already ours by faith in Christ, but we don’t possess it yet because God is keeping it safe in a place where no thieves or moths or decay – not even the IRS – can get at it. And knowing this makes our hope for it all the greater, because if it comes from our heavenly Father, we know it’s good. So good, that the Bible (unlike all those books of Christian fiction) only describes it by telling us what it is not. Unlike earthly wealth, it is not subject to destruction, it will not succumb to the polluting influence of sin, and time won’t decrease its value. John adds that there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. (Revelation 21:4) God has promised us an eternal inheritance that’s so good we can’t even imagine it – but we do know that it is unlike anything in this world: it is permanent, kept safely in heaven for us.


The only question that remains is: in a spiritually dangerous world, will we get there to enjoy it? Peter also answers this question: [you] through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. The devil and the world want nothing more than to rob us of our hope of eternal life. The devil whispers: “If God really had good plans for you, he wouldn’t let you suffer like this, he wouldn’t have let you lose your job, he wouldn’t have let cancer kill your husband or wife or child – you can’t trust his Word or promises.” The world is constantly holding out the false promise that we can – with enough time, money, ingenuity – create paradise on earth – so we don’t need the one God offers. No one can take our eternal life from us – but we can certainly forfeit it if we doubt God’s Word and his love or make the mistake of spending all our time, effort, and energy storing up treasures here on earth instead of storing up treasures in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-21)


But God has even taken our weakness into account. The One who guards our inheritance for us also guards us for our inheritance. The Greek word for “shielded” pictures a ring of protection. Imagine the secret service surrounding the president or the FBI providing protective custody. How does God shield us from the deceptions and false hopes of the world and the devil? Through faith. How can faith, which so often seems to us to be a fickle and intangible thing be the instrument God uses to shield us until the day of salvation? Because the very nature of faith is that it is not something we do; it is trust in what God has done. Faith is the opposite of works (Romans 3:28), it is trust in the work of Jesus. Paul describes the power of faith in Ephesians 6: take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. (Ephesians 6:16)


Let’s be clear: this is not our personal faith. Our personal faith is always weak, always imperfect, always liable to being misinformed and misguided. This is THE Christian faith, the body of doctrine that God has revealed in his Word. This is the Gospel, the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. (Romans 1:16) This is the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3) The sum total of what God has revealed in the Bible is our shield. This is the faith taught by Jesus and the prophets and apostles. This is the faith in which we were baptized, instructed and confirmed. And as such, this provides a fitting end for our series on the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is the shortest and simplest summary of the Christian faith – the shield the Church has developed over the centuries to fend off the lies of the devil and the world. We need this Creed because this Creed simply and faithfully points us away from ourselves and what we have done to God, who he is and what he has done for us. I pray that over the past several months we have met our three objectives in studying this basic Christian creed: 1) That you know even better what you believe and why you believe it; 2) that you may be better prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15); and 3) that you may be equipped to identify, mark, and avoid false teaching and false teachers. Learn this faith, love this faith, cling to this faith, keep running back to this faith because through this faith God has guaranteed to shield you with his almighty power until your salvation is revealed.


There are many today who have no use or need for something as basic and ancient as the Apostles’ Creed. They claim that what we need in the 21st century is religion that is relevant and relational and about us. The truth is that if even .01% of our salvation is up to us – we will be lost. That’s why we need the Creed. The Creed is not about us, it’s about the one, true Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is the only sure and trustworthy object of our faith and source of our hope. (1 Peter 1:21) He guarantees that this life is not all there is, that death is not the end. He has proven it by raising Jesus from the dead. He guarantees its permanence: keeping our inheritance in heaven far from all destruction and decay. His power shields us from Satan’s attacks through the one, true, Christian faith. May God’s guarantee give us peace in life and fearless in death. Amen.



[1] With the understanding, of course, that apart from faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

Psalm 130 - The Forgiveness of Sins - September 2, 2018

Labor Day is the ultimate American holiday, isn’t it? We get Monday off – and who doesn’t hate Mondays? We get a long weekend, and who doesn’t love weekends? And unlike other holidays, we aren’t obligated to give the credit and honor to something or someone else – it’s not a celebration of those who have died in service to our country or a president’s birthday. In fact, that may be what we like best about this holiday. What does it celebrate? The American worker. We get to celebrate our favorite people in the world: us! Surely we have earned and deserved a long weekend and a Monday off of work. But even though it is Labor Day weekend, we are gathered in God’s House today not to celebrate something we have earned and deserve – but something we have not earned and do not deserve, and yet, something we need far more than a day off of work: the forgiveness of sins. Today we will see why we need it, how God grants it, and how we receive it.


The author of Psalm 130 was drowning in the depths of despair. He was wallowing in hopelessness and fully recognized that he was helpless to help himself. In contrast to many who seek to strike a bargain with God or ask only for the strength to help themselves out of trouble – all this author could ask was that God hear him: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. Why is he feeling this way? If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? Everyone knows that all is not right in this life – not only in the world out there but right in here: in our own hearts and minds. We may give it all sorts of different labels – despair, shame, discontentment, depression – but what we are really feeling is the guilt that is the result of our sins. Guilt is more than just a feeling. The Hebrew word translated “sins” literally means “deeds which incur guilt.” Guilt is a liability, an obligation. It is a debt that must be paid. And the debt that any and every sin incurs is death. (Romans 6:23) Because there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22-23), everyone feels this guilt. Because guilt is universal so are the attempts to find solutions to make the guilt go away. One common solution goes like this: it’s when you break the rules, break the law that you incur a debt and feel guilt – so, if you just get rid of the rules you can get rid of the source of your guilt, right?


Let’s use a modern example to test this theory. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws forbidding gay marriage are unconstitutional – giving gay couples throughout the country the civil right to marry. A segment of society had seemingly succeeded in getting God’s will declared unconstitutional. They hoped that by removing a law from the books the guilt would be removed from their hearts. Did it work? Numerous studies have shown [1] that LGBTQ individuals are more likely to report high levels of depression, more likely to have attempted suicide, and are more likely to use illegal drugs than the rest of the population. You might be able to convince the Supreme Court that God’s will is unconstitutional – but you can’t remove the guilt that sins against the 6th commandment incur. That’s just one example of the real, root problem: we know something is wrong but we misidentify the cause – and so we will never find the solution.


That’s why we need Psalms like this one to wake us up to the truth. This psalm has a long and prominent history in Christianity. Its nickname is “De Profundis” – a Latin phrase that means “out of the depths” (from verse 1). In contrast to the Oprah’s and Dr. Phil’s of the world – who argue that the problem is out there and the solution is within us; through His Word, God leads us to see that the problem isn’t out there and the solution isn’t in here; the problem is in here and the solution must lie outside of us. What the world needs today more than anything else is an accurate understanding of sin – that’s it’s not something that can be removed by Supreme Court decision or executive order or any number of good works. And it does appear that God is leading the world, as it faces the consequences of its own contradictory and self-destructive delusions, to think more seriously about it. If we really want to serve the world, we need to be ready with answers from God’s Word when the world comes crawling to us wondering why their solutions to guilt don’t work – so that we can then lead them to the one, truly effective cure.


But it’s not just the world that needs Psalms like this one. We, the Church, need it too. We need it to lead us to a deeper consciousness of our sin. We need to be jarred out of our easy-going complacency that takes forgiveness for granted, that treats absolution and Communion as something I can take a vacation from in the summer; that figures the Church ought to be doing something more productive than administering Baptism and Communion. We need to see ourselves as God sees us – not in comparison to others, not according to the measure of our nation’s laws – but measured against God’s demand to be perfect. (Matthew 5:48) We need to remember that we are saints in God’s eyes but we still sin daily; so that the guilt that we feel is real. God really is angry at us for our sins. He is serious about his threat to punish sinners in hell forever. Because only when we fully recognize how broken and helpless our condition is will we thirst and hunger for the cure.


What is that cure? Human ingenuity is great – and our ability as a race to do and invent all sorts of things to better and extend life is amazing. But all human skill and ingenuity have failed to provide a cure for sin and guilt. Some exert themselves to the breaking point trying to do enough good to make up for the evil they have done – but no amount of good can remove one ounce of bad. Others try to distract themselves from their guilt with busy, active lives or try to drown it in substances – but when the weekend is over, when morning comes, the guilt remains. Luther and his fellow monks starved themselves, beat themselves, slept on cold stone floors and prayed for days on end hoping to atone for their sins – and yet Luther could find no peace for his conscience. [2] The world has prescribed therapy sessions and therapy dogs, diet and exercise, stimulants and depressants and everything in between to remove guilt and make you feel better – but none of it works. Because there is only one cure for sin: forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? There was once a little boy who asked his mother to explain how God can forgive sins. She responded by asking him to bring her his etch-a-sketch that she knew he had been playing with the day before. Finding nothing on it, she asked her son what had happened to the writing. He explained that he had flicked the switch to wipe it clean. “But where is the writing?” she asked. “I don’t know,” replied the boy, “I wiped it out, it is gone.” Perhaps that’s all that can be said – as far as our real understanding goes – concerning forgiveness. [3] We confess to believe it, not understand it. It is a truth to be accepted because God says it, not because we can see it, feel it, or prove it. But of the fact that with [God] there is forgiveness, there can be no doubt. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. (Psalm 103:12) I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34) If you feel the weight and guilt of your sin, don’t turn to yourself, or your works; don’t look to therapy or prescriptions or substances; don’t compare yourself to others or lobby for the Supreme Court to declare God’s will unconstitutional. Look to the only one who has the cure for sin and guilt: our gracious God.   


But the fact that God forgives still doesn’t answer the question: how? Unfortunately, many believe and teach today that God is kind of like a lazy old man who doesn’t really mean what he says; that he kind of just winks and nods and “poof” your sins are gone. This is a bloodless, Christless, crossless, false form of Christianity. Where this false gospel is proclaimed the cross is replaced with a movie screen and the altar and baptismal font (where forgiveness is objectively distributed) is replaced with a praise band (to make you feel good). But the Bible is clear, God does not just turn a blind eye to sin; he must punish it. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. (Isaiah 13:11) God’s demand for justice had to be satisfied – or else he would not be God. But because the God of justice is also the God of love (1 John 4:16), he found a way. God sent his only Son, Jesus, to take our place, to be our substitute, to pay our debt, to suffer the punishment we deserved with his own suffering and death. 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) Jesus was the atoning sacrifice – the payment price – for our sins. God is a forgiving God, that is true – but he could only forgive us if someone else suffered the punishment we deserved. Therefore, in Christ and his cross, both God’s justice and his love are found. He got the justice we deserved. We get the love he deserved. That is how a holy and just God grants us forgiveness.


The final question is: how do we receive forgiveness? God loved the world (John 3:16), Jesus paid for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2), God wants all the world to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), and, as Paul said, all have been justified freely by his grace. (Romans 3:24) And yet Scripture is equally clear that not all people will receive the forgiveness Jesus won and therefore not all will be saved. (Mark 16:16) Now, you might expect that now is when we are told what we must do to achieve forgiveness. You would be wrong. The Apostles’ Creed is all about what God does for us – and that’s true even here. In order for us to receive forgiveness, the Holy Spirit must do three things for us and in us.  


First, he must show us our need. The person who doesn’t know he is sick will never seek out a cure. We must be convicted by God’s Law so that we know what sin is and that according to it, we are sinners. It doesn’t do us any good to say “All people are sinners.” We must be brought by God to acknowledge “I am a sinner.” Once we are aware of our sin, God both invites and commands us to confess it. (1 John 1:9; James 5:16) As we’ve stated before, this is difficult for proud humans like us. But there’s no other way. King David tried to do it. He tried to swallow and stifle and pen up his sin in his heart – but it only made things worse. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me. (Psalm 32:3-4) Pride sealed David’s lips; but as long as he kept quiet he could find no peace, because there can be no forgiveness apart from confession of sin. [4] But that all changed when David confessed the truth: then I acknowledged my sin to you…I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD” – and you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)


We must know our sins and confess them – but that’s only half the story. The Holy Spirit must also lead us to believe that God is truly willing and able to forgive us. Faith, and faith alone, receives forgiveness. With Paul we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) We are justified – we receive the forgiveness Jesus won for us – by faith alone. But faith is not a good work that we do to merit forgiveness, it is merely a hand that grasps the forgiveness God gives. Faith is never a blind leap – faith always clings to something objective and concrete. So where can we find concrete, objective proof that we are forgiven? Not through prayer, mystically, or through our feelings but in Absolution, in Baptism, in Holy Communion. Thank God for giving us such sure and objective assurance that our sins are forgiven. You don’t have to feel it, see it, earn it or sense it – all you can do is hear it, receive it, and believe it. So don’t skip too quickly over this article next time you confess the Apostles’ Creed – instead, understand your desperate need for forgiveness, trust that God is willing to forgive you, and believe that Jesus has purchased your forgiveness with his blood. Amen.  



[2] LW 27:13

[3] The Hebrew term for forgiveness in Psalm 130:4, salah, is used in Scripture only of God – never does this word refer to people forgiving each other. The very terminology seems to say that we cannot really understand God’s forgiveness of our sins.

[4] This is still a very common problem: people wanting forgiveness without a confession of sin. People want their lifestyle affirmed, their guilt taken away without admitting that what they are doing is sinful. And liberal churches give them the false assurance that they have it. This is a terrible abuse of the Gospel and offers nothing but a false security to sinners.

Ephesians 5:25-27 - The Communion of Saints - August 26, 2018

When you boil it down, the Apostles’ Creed is basically a short list of Biblical facts; things that God has done, things that are true regardless of whether anyone believes them or not. But these facts do not save anyone unless they believe them…thus the I believe part of the confession. While the 1st and 2nd articles are composed of things the Father and Son have done – things it is only possible to accept by faith because we weren’t there to see them; the 3rd article presents the work and activity of the Holy Spirit in our world and in our midst right here and now. Why, then, do we say we believe these things – and not that we see them? Because quite often, the facts seem to stand in stark contrast to that which we do see. Take the phrase before us this morning: the communion of saints. Based on the inspired Word of God we believe that there are living saints who are in perfect communion with God and with one another. Be honest: is that what you saw in the mirror this morning? Is that what you see when you look around? But what is a saint? How does one become a saint? What is a communion and how do you get it? Those questions will focus our attention this morning.


While much of the doctrinal language of Scripture has been lost to modern culture as a result of biblical illiteracy and the dumbing down of education (how many people can properly define justification or grace?) the word and concept of “saint” has survived. The world has its saints. They are idolized at awards shows. They are memorialized with a star on the Hollywood walk of fame. They have hospital wings and schools named after them. And, usually, they all have one thing in common: they’re dead. (Senator McCain joined these ranks overnight.)


That’s because our society in general has a very Roman Catholic understanding of “saint”-hood. A Catholic dictionary gives this definition of a “saint”: in the strict sense saints are those who distinguish themselves by heroic virtue during life…the Church’s official recognition of sanctity implies that the persons are now in heavenly glory. [1] In Catholic thought, saints are those who locked themselves away in cold, lonely monasteries/nunneries and devoted themselves to long hours of prayer; who waged war against the enemies of Christ and died trying; who denied themselves and faced persecution and disease to help others; who lived humble, self-sacrificing, moral, upright lives. This is the standard conception of what it means to be a saint. And, like all good errors, this one survives because it is half-true. If we who have been saved from the fires of hell by Christ are compelled by his love to live for him now (2 Corinthians 5:14-15) – then many of those things ought to characterize our lives too, right? We ought to be people who forget ourselves to serve others, who suffer persecution and pain as we carry our own crosses, who deny the desires of the flesh in order to follow the will of God, who are determined to live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. (1 Timothy 2:2)


And so, while we thank God for protecting us from the faith-killing errors of worshipping and praying to the saints (a related Roman Catholic heresy) – we might ask ourselves whether the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. That we don’t love the good and virtuous as much as we ought to. That rather than cherish and admire those who give of their time, their energy, their gifts to support the church and serve others – and strive to follow their example; we abuse their generosity by expecting it. It’s a sad commentary if we still pay lip-service to the Biblical principles of faithfulness and humility and self-sacrifice – but in practice, we operate with the worldly attitude that actually pride ourselves on how little we can do and still get by, on how quickly we can accomplish tasks rather than their quality, that we often ask “how can the church serve me?” instead of “how can I serve the church?” Diligence, faithfulness, hard work, self-sacrifice and service to others are fruits of the Spirit that we should all strive for. (Galatians 5:22-23) May it never be said among us: “well, I can’t do anything to be saved – so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.” If we have ever justified our lack of effort in our commitments to our God, our spouses, children, families, jobs, or Christ’s church by the truth that we are saved by grace and not by our works, we need to repent; to call it what it is: sin – and rejoice that Jesus worked tirelessly to save us from those sins.


And yet, as natural as the Catholic definition of a “saint” is, it’s not the meaning of the word as it is used in the Creed or, more importantly, in Scripture. In the Bible, a saint is not a person who lives an especially holy life nor does it refer exclusively to dead people – it is rather applied to all who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. The Greek word for saint is hagios, which doesn’t refer to what a person does as much as what a person is. The basic meaning is “set apart.” [2] How are natural born sinners set apart from their sin? Paul tells us: 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.


In contrast to the view that only a few exceptional – and dead – individuals are saints, Paul says that the entire church – from the 5 year old to the 85 year old – is holy, is a saint in God’s eyes. This is not because of who they are or what they have done – but, rather, because of what has been done to them. The reality is that when Christ found us, we were not holy, we were not without stain or wrinkle or blemish, there was nothing remotely saintly about us. We were, instead, infected with sin from head to toe and covered in the filth of our own dirty thoughts, words and actions. To use the vivid picture from the OT – we were not spotless brides but trashy, unfaithful, adulterous prostitutes. [3] And no amount of scrubbing or doing of good works could change that. But Jesus took our impurity, our filth, our sin upon himself and suffered God’s wrath on the cross to pay for it. He exchanged our rags for his righteousness through the Sacrament of holy Baptism – the washing with water through the word. Baptism is the fact on which your sainthood stands. Every time we begin worship in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, every time we see the sign of the cross, every time we see the font, every time we receive our Savior’s body and blood in Communion – we are reminded of what God gave us in baptism: that Christ has died to make us holy, to cleanse us from every sin, to dress us in his robe of righteous so that a holy God might see us as saints, “holy ones”. And the goal of his redeeming work – and the Holy Spirit’s work of applying it to us individually – is that when he returns, we would be ready and waiting for him to come and take us to his home to be united with him forever. Those are the facts. So next time you look in the mirror, don’t believe what your eyes tell you; believe what God tells you: you are a saint, holy and set apart from sin and from this world.


On the whole, that may be the easier half of the equation to accept: that we as individuals have been made holy by Jesus. But we also confess that there is such a thing as a communion of saints. The word communion comes from the Greek word koinonia (1 Corinthians 10:16) meaning “participating in” or “fellowship.” the Apostle Paul describes the common union that exists between all who have been cleansed by Christ, as symbolized by the Sacrament of Holy Communion: Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Corinthians 10:17) Martin Luther, always wanting to explain theological truths in terms that even children could understand, actually preferred to use the term “holy congregation.” This was how he explained it in the Large Catechism: “I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one head, even Christ [Ephesians 1:22]. This group is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with many different gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms [Ephesians 4:5-8, 11]. I am also a part and member of this same group, a sharer and joint owner of all the goods it possesses [Romans 8:17]. I am brought to it and incorporated into it by the Holy Spirit through having heard and continuing to hear God’s Word [Galatians 3:1-2], which is the beginning of entering it.” [4]


A related term, community, is a popular notion today. There are community organizers, online communities, communities defined by every letter of the alphabet, and even community churches. These exist because people long to belong, long for social connections, long for common union and fellowship with other people. And that’s not by accident. That’s how God created us. Remember the only thing that wasn’t completely, perfectly good on the 6th day of creation? The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18) God designed us to be social creatures, to have unity and fellowship both with himself and with other people. The evidence of this inborn desire is everywhere. (Ironically, though, every time the world fabricates a “community” it ends up dividing people rather than uniting them!)


But there are several important differences between the communion of saints and the poor imitations fabricated by the world. 1) First and foremost, membership in the communion of saints is not voluntary – not that it is forced on anyone, but that no one joins it by their own free choice. Recall our lesson from Acts, where the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47) You may choose to be a democrat or choose to join a fitness club – but the Lord added you to the communion of saints. 2) Christian communion doesn’t depend on our level of commitment or effort. Worldly communities depend on the passion and dedication of its members to survive. Our communion depends solely on the work of the Holy Spirit. For example, while there were many divisions in the Corinthian congregation, Paul still refers to them as the church of Godthose sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. (1 Corinthians 1:2) The bond we have in the Spirit exists even if we disagree, in spite of the fact that we may have different tastes in music or different opinions in worldly matters. As long as we gather around the Word and Sacraments – through which God joins us to himself, we will have communion with each other. Apart from those means, our fellowship will disintegrate. 3) The bond we have – because it is created by the Holy Spirit – cannot be broken or destroyed by outside forces. Think of how regularly the Church has been persecuted from the days of the apostles up to today – and yet because we are bound together by Christ and Christ rules all things in heaven for the good of the church (Ephesians 1:22-23) not even the devil himself can disrupt our communion. (The only way a person leaves this communion is by deliberately cutting themselves off from Christ and the means of grace through impenitence or unbelief. Thus: excommunication.) 4) Finally, unlike any other association we may enter into in this life – be it citizenship in a nation, a branch of the military, a family, or even marriage – the communion we have with others who are in Christ is not ended by death or even by the end of the world. The people we stand shoulder to shoulder with as we receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins are the very people we will see and worship the Lamb with throughout all eternity in heaven. (Revelation 7:14)


So let us cherish this communion that the Holy Spirit has created among us through Christ. Let us find our common union, not in our social standing or outward appearance or mere friendship, but in the Word and at the altar, where each of us come as ragged, unworthy sinners, but leave dressed in the perfect righteousness of Christ. Let us rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15) because we all belong to one body, and whatever happens to one of us affects us all. Let us gather regularly to strengthen our fellowship with each other by confessing our sins and being forgiven, by receiving the body and blood of Christ, by helping, encouraging, instructing – and yes, sometimes even admonishing each other – because the day of Judgment is fast approaching. (Hebrews 10:25) We may not see it with our eyes, but we are saints, cleansed in Baptism with the cleansing blood of Christ. The Holy Spirit has gathered us into the body of Christ, into intimate communion with one another. May God lead us to not only believe and confess these facts, but to work diligently to be what Christ has made us: the communion of saints. Amen.  



[2] See Romans 1:7; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1

[3] See the book of Hosea

[4] LC Article III, par. 51

Matthew 16:13-18 - The Holy Christian Church - August 19, 2018

Among the many ways Scripture describes the relationship of believers to Jesus (nation, flock, building, etc.) perhaps the most helpful for us today is that of a human body. Jesus is the head and believers are the body, the church. (Colossians 1:18) This picture emphasizes how intimate and inseparable the bond is between Christ and the Church: you won’t ever find one without the other. And yet, Satan has made it his mission to do just that: separate the head from the body. That he has been successful is evident when people say: “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t believe in the Church.” “I’m spiritual, but not religious, so I don’t go to church.” “Why would I go to church, it’s full of hypocrites and sinners?” “I worship Jesus on the golf course, at the lake, in bed…that’s my church.” “I believe in my own way, I don’t need a church to tell me who and what and how to believe.” Can a person be a Christian without the church? Can a church be the church without Christ? Those are complicated questions, but we will find answers to them in asking more basic questions: what is the church? Who established it? Where is it? How does it survive and grow?


What is the church? Ask five people and you will probably get five different answers. We commonly speak of the church as a building. Sometimes we speak of a denomination as the church. Catholics, especially, like to consider their denomination the Church. Many today consider the church to be a community service group that primarily exists to make the world a better place. Finally, and frighteningly prevalent today are groups that calls themselves churches but are really cults – groups who follow a human leader instead of Christ. So what is the proper, Biblical definition of the Church? When Jesus said I will build my church, he used the Greek word ecclesia. Ecclesia means “called out.” The Church is the grand total of those who have been “called out” of this unbelieving world into God’s family. And so properly speaking, the Christian church is all people, everywhere and of all time, who confess and believe what Peter confessed in our text, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.


The answer to the next question, then, is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Who established the church? God’s only Son did, when he came into this world to live the perfect life we never could, died to pay for our sins against God’s holy law, and rose again victorious over sin, death, and the devil. Jesus Christ, then, is the one who established the Church by his life, death and resurrection. Jesus, who he is and what he’s done, is the rock on which the church is built. Paul emphasizes this in his letter to the Corinthians: no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:11) And so, in contrast to the opinions of those who regard the Church as an man-made invention, a community service organization, or a dying relic of the past that we don’t really need in the 21st century – the Church is God’s institution, founded and established by Christ, built and formed when the Holy Spirit brings sinners like us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. So even though church buildings and denominations and pastors come and go, Christ’s Church will stand forever, and not even the gates of hell will overcome it because it is built on a foundation that cannot be changed, torn down or destroyed: Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.


Because there is only one foundation, there is only one Church, undivided by time or testament, by distance or denomination. Jesus said on this rock I will build my church, not churches. Naturally, this raises some questions – and perhaps even doubts – in our minds. What about those believers who have died and gone to heaven? The Church transcends the boundaries between heaven and earth. We refer to the Church on earth as the Church Militant – because it is still engaged in spiritual warfare with the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh (Ephesians 6:10; 1 Peter 5:8-9); and the Church in heaven as the Church Triumphant – because it consists of those who have completed their warfare and are now resting in glory. (Revelation 2:10; 4:4; 7:9) But because both groups are bound by faith in Jesus – believers, living and dead, belong to one Church. What about Old Testament believers, those who died before Jesus’ birth? Weren’t they Jewish, not Christian? What about Abraham, Moses, David? It’s really simple when you think about it – what was the basis for their faith? God’s promise to send a Savior. (Romans 4:3; Hebrews 11:2) They too trusted the promised Savior’s work of redemption and so they too were and are members of the one Christian Church.


What about today, when there are more denominations (and non-denominations) than it’s possible to count? Remember, who belongs to the Holy Christian Church? All who believe in Jesus as their Savior. Are there true believers in Baptist, Catholic, Charismatic and non-denominational churches? Wherever the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered, there will be believers. (Don’t you dare leave here saying that pastor said that only Lutherans will be in heaven!) But here we need to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible (or hidden) church is the true Christian Church, consisting only of believers. All visible churches contain both believers and unbelievers (what we would call hypocrites). While they may belong to a local congregation, they don’t belong to the Holy Christian Church. In the Holy Christian Church there are no denominations, no divisions, no disunity – there are only those who belong to God through faith in Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul explained the foundation of the church’s unity in greater detail in our second lesson: make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6)


It’s important to understand that unity is something Christ gives us through the Holy Spirit, not something we need to work for. Thus Paul’s encouragement to make every effort to keep that unity. We do truly desire that all who are already united by invisible faith in Christ would be united in external, visible fellowship. Ah, but someone will say (and you might be thinking) “but you Lutherans don’t allow other Christians to receive Communion, you don’t worship or pray with Baptists or Catholics, you don’t work together in community service or mission projects with community Bible churches – how can you claim to desire unity?” Well, believe it or not, the practice of closed communion and refusing to join in prayer, worship and other Gospel-related activities until doctrinal agreement has been established is, in fact, the only way to safeguard the unity that is ours in Christ. It’s the devil would like us to believe that the only thing that’s important is that we all appear to get along – and that doctrine and practice don’t really matter.

Consider just a few doctrines and how they all tie directly back to the basic confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Many churches no longer demand agreement that God created everything in six normal days using nothing but his Word. But if God is not our Creator, we are not accountable to him and there is no need for a Savior like Jesus. How could we pray or worship with people who deny the First Article? Others reject Jesus’ virgin birth, his miracles and his resurrection. But if Jesus was not sinless, all-powerful and victorious over death – how can he be anyone’s Savior? Many churches today teach that the bread and wine of Communion are only symbols of Jesus’ body and blood because that’s the only explanation that makes sense. But that denies Jesus’ clear and simple words: this is my body…this is my blood. (Matthew 26:26, 28) How can we claim unity with people who deny Jesus’ words? Every doctrine of Scripture is intimately connected to the confession that Christ is the Son of God. And so, preserving unity doesn’t mean ignoring doctrinal differences, it guarding the only unity that matters: unity based on the Word. (John 17:17) We mean it when we confess that all who believe in Jesus as Savior will be in heaven one day – whether they are Baptist, Catholic, non-denominational or Lutheran today. But we must recognize that it is not faithfulness to the Word that brings about division; it is false doctrine that brings about division. We will not join in fellowship with those who teach and preach falsely now – because doing so reveals a lack of love for Scripture, a lack of love for those who are erring, and, most importantly, a lack of love for Christ, who said: [teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:20) The Church is one. It is united in Christ – his Word and work. And that is a unity worth fighting for.


The final question is: how (or who) is responsible for gathering, growing, building the Church? While I would argue that this, too, should be obvious, there is much confusion regarding who is responsible for building the Church. Many, probably most American Christians, believe and teach that it is up to us to gather the Church. That if people are going to come to Jesus, believe, and be saved, we have to persuade (or trick) them to come in the door and then convince them to believe in this Jesus guy. This thinking does not come from Scripture, it comes from the world of business, where marketing gimmicks and emotional and psychological manipulation are the norm in persuading people to purchase products and services. Not only is it impossible for human beings to create faith (1 Corinthians 12:3 and here, where Jesus told Peter that this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven!); but Jesus says point blank I will build my church. The Church is not our church. It’s not our job to establish it, grow it or build it. The Church belongs to Christ, her head. He establishes it. He unites it. He grows it. He says that no one comes to him unless the Father draws him. (John 6:44) He sends out apostles and prophets and pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-13), he sends the Holy Spirit to create and sustain faith (John 14:15-21), he has given no other tools but the Word and Sacraments to grow and sustain his Church.


Now someone might say, “but those marketing gimmicks work, just look at the biggest mega-churches in our country!” And we don’t deny that human methods are effective in getting people in the door of visible churches. But our purpose is not to bring people into the visible church, it is to make disciples of Jesus, members of his Church. (Matthew 28:19) The only way to enter Christ’s Church is through conversion – the total 180 degree change of heart and life. Only the Holy Spirit can bring this conversion about. And the Holy Spirit only works through the means of grace: the Law and Gospel. Only the law of God is sharp enough to pierce the hard hearts of people to bring about repentance. (Hebrews 4:12) And only the Gospel is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16) Wherever and whenever these tools are put to work, they get results – God promises it! (Isaiah 55:10-11) The Christian Church can never fail, but visible churches can fail, in fact, visible churches will fail if they try to substitute these divinely appointed means for principles taken from the world of business, for their own clever ideas, their own methods and means. Christ will build his church. Our job is simply to BE the church, be the body of Christ: pastors should preach, teachers should teach, parents should raise their children to fear and love the Lord, husbands and wives should love each other, whatever God has given us each to do tomorrow morning, we should do to his glory and we should all hear the Word diligently and receive the Sacrament regularly. Because that is what it means to be a member of the Christian Church. (1 Corinthians 12) Let us be busy carrying out the tasks our Lord has given us as his body. Let him worry about growing the Church he established and united with his blood.


When Peter confessed his faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus replied I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. We believe in the Holy Christian Church. Satan works tirelessly to separate Christ from the church and the church from Christ. He knows that cut off from the head, the body will die. But Jesus has promised that Satan will never succeed. And that’s because the Church is not a human invention, based and gathered around human opinion, and grown by human innovation. The Church is established by Christ, united in Christ, and built by Christ. You want to find the Church? Don’t look at the building, the people, the pastor, the snacks….Look for Christ. Look for his Word and Sacrament and there you will find the Church – and, more importantly, there you will find forgiveness for your sins, protection from the devil, and salvation for your soul. May Christ keep us safe in the ark of his Church militant until he takes us home to join the Church triumphant. Amen.  

Ephesians 4:22-24 - The Holy Spirit's Work: Sanctification - August 5, 2018

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) The central doctrine of Scripture and the foundational doctrine of Christianity is justification by grace through faith. Because this is the doctrine on which the Church stands or falls and without which no one will be saved, we emphasize this Gospel each and every week. But there’s a side-effect to emphasizing Christ’s work for us over and against our own works: we are sometimes accused of ignoring or forbidding good works and Christian living. (AC XX: 1) Luther and the later Lutheran confessors faced this accusation – and we still do to this day. But the accusation is baseless. We do teach, instruct, and admonish believers to lead holy lives and do good works. We do confess that good works are necessary – but with the important distinction that they are necessary not for salvation, but as a necessary fruit of the salvation that is already ours. With that distinction in mind, the apostle Paul leads us to consider our Christian lives of sanctification, beginning, middle and end.


In contrast to his other letters – which were written to correct specific errors or heresies – Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written to lead the Christians in Ephesus to a greater understanding and appreciation of God’s gracious plan for them. He highlights important doctrines like election (Ephesians 1:4), original sin (Ephesians 2:1), conversion (Ephesians 2:8-9) – and the nature and essence of the Christian church (Ephesians 2:11-3:13). Then, in the second half of his letter, Paul shifts his focus from what God has done for us in Christ to what God is doing in us through Christ. He connects justification to sanctification, stating that saved people are changed people. Saved people are new people. Saved people are sanctified people – that is, they are set apart in their thoughts, words, and actions from the ungodly, unbelieving world and for God.


While justification is a change in status before God – sanctification is a change of life before God. Where does this change of life begin? Sanctification begins with God; it is rooted in justification – with God’s free and unconditional declaration that we are “not-guilty” in his sight for Jesus’ sake. Very much like creation – where God created everything out of nothing with only his Word – justification is God declaring us to be what we are not. By nature we are spiritually dead, unable to please God or enter eternal life. But because God credits Jesus’ perfect life to our account and has punished him for our sins on the cross – we now are what we were not: we are justified, forgiven, and eligible for eternal life in heaven. God – completely out of grace – has changed our status in his eyes: from enemy to child, from damned to saved. This changed status only becomes ours through faith in Jesus. But the Holy Spirit’s work doesn’t end with changing our status before God. He also changes our heart, our character, our attitudes and lives here and now.


Understanding that sanctification is the work of God the Holy Spirit keeps us from confusing it with mere moralizing and behavior modification. From self-help books and diet and exercise plans to interventions and prison sentences – the world is filled with programs and methods intended to change behavior. While there may be some outward similarities between sanctification and man-made reformation – there is one huge difference: the motivation. People are motivated to diet and exercise to enhance and extend their lives. Would-be criminals don’t commit crimes because out of fear of punishment. Unfortunately, many churches are filled with a false “gospel” that consists of nothing more than teaching you how to change and better your life. But none of these are Christian sanctification. They may change behavior, but because this change does not spring from faith in Jesus – this behavior does not please God. (Hebrews 11:6) It’s like putting lipstick on a pig – the outward appearance is changed, but the heart is untouched. The work of the Holy Spirit is not simply behavioral modification; his work is heart transformation. And so true Christian sanctification doesn’t begin with the law, but with the Gospel – by the Spirit renewing and transforming our hearts through his gift of faith in Jesus.


Only when God has already given us new life through the Gospel, are we able to grow in sanctified living – in growing daily to be more obedient to God and more like Christ. This is the process Paul describes in our text: you were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self. Paul describes sanctification in terms of clothing – taking off the old and putting on the new.


The first part involves scraping away our old self, the old Adam, the sinful character we were born with. Paul says that this old self is being corrupted by its deceitful desires. He’s saying that our nature is so corrupted by sin that we are actually drawn to the things that lead to our own destruction. The prime example of this took place in the Garden of Eden when Satan led Eve to believe that eating the forbidden fruit would be good for her. In reality, it led to death – not only for them, but for all mankind. And that’s still how the sinful nature works. Prodded by Satan, we are deceived into believing that evil, wicked, and harmful things are actually good. God’s law serves to diagnose and expose these deceitful desires – so that they can be removed. The old self leads us to seek happiness and contentment in money, in our possessions, in our spouses, our families, in our own strength or potential or future. But these things can never lead to happiness or contentment, which is why God forbids trusting them in the 1st commandment. We have a natural tendency to put our experience, our feelings, our reason on the same level, or even above Scripture. But because going our way leads to death (Proverbs 14:12), God forbids placing anything above his Word in the 2nd commandment. By nature we believe that if we want to go to heaven we must earn it, which is why God commands that we take time regularly to stop, to rest, to listen to his Word which tells us that there is nothing we must or can do to save ourselves. The devil leads us to believe that any and all authority over us is a bad thing, but because the only result of rebellion against God-given authority in marriage, in the home, in the church, in the state is chaos – God protects the authority of his representatives in the 4th commandment. Putting off the old man consists of looking deeply into the mirror of God’s holy law to see which of our attitudes, desires and behaviors are contrary to his will – taking them off like stinking, filthy clothing and laying them at the foot of Jesus’ cross in repentance.


But that’s only half the story. Paul not only says that we should put of the old, but also put on the new self. Just like it’s not good to take off your dirty, filthy clothes and remain naked – so the old, sinful nature is to be replaced by the new man created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. In his explanations to each of the commandments, Luther does an excellent job of balancing the taking off of the old and the putting on of the new. Instead of despising and neglecting God’s Word and becoming so busy that we don’t have time for it, we will gladly hear and learn it. Instead of pushing the limits of disrespect and dishonor for God’s representatives, we will honor, serve, and obey them and give them love and respect. Instead of merely refraining from hatred and murder, we will help and befriend them in every bodily need. Not only will believers put off the evil of sexual immorality, homosexuality, divorce, and living together outside of marriage – but they will hold marriage in high regard and husbands and wives will love and honor each other. As a redeemed child of God, not only will I not covet anything I should not want to have, I will do all I can to help my neighbor keep his property and possessions.


Our sinful nature cannot stand this. “You mean, not only do I have to avoid what is evil – I have to actively do what is good?” Yes! And to put it bluntly, THIS MEANS WAR. It is never easy to do the opposite of what feels and seems right. It is never easy to give up a habit. Living a Christian life means saying “no” to the most important person in the world: me. Make no mistake, Christian sanctification is not as easy as taking off a dirty shirt and putting on a clean one. Paul refers to sanctification as crucifixion (Galatians 6:14) and death (Romans 6:11). This is why Christians are called soldiers and the Christian life a battle. We are called, not to surrender to sin – as if Jesus died so that we could go on sinning (Romans 6:1-2) – but to fight against it. While it’s easy enough to talk about sanctification in here, while it’s easy to decry the evils of society and the world, while it’s relatively easy to leave God’s house with every intention of amending our sinful lives – the real battle takes place out there, in our homes, our jobs, our marriages, our families, our hearts. If the faith we confess in here is genuine, it will reveal itself out there in changed lives; lives of obedience to God and love for others. (James 2:14-26) So each of us must ask ourselves: how’s my battle going? Is the new man winning? Or has the old self again taken control?


Where do we find the strength for such a fierce, intense, personal, daily battle? Remember our Savior’s promise from the Gospel lesson: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit (John 15:5). If you are tired and worn out from the fight; if you feel like you’ve chalked up more losses than victories – you’re in the right place. This is where the Holy Spirit brings us rest and relief from the war. This is where we are refreshed with the good news that our salvation doesn’t – ever – depend on us, but on Christ. This is where Jesus himself reaches down from heaven with his own body and blood to strengthen and nourish us with the forgiveness of sins. When you are feeling weak and worn out and beaten – that’s especially when you need to receive this sacrament. Martin Luther had a very vivid way of describing the role of Communion in our sanctification: “To give a simple illustration of what takes place in this eating: it is as if a wolf devoured a sheep and the sheep were so powerful a food that it transformed the wolf and turned him into a sheep. So, when we eat Christ’s flesh physically and spiritually, the food is so powerful that it transforms us into itself and out of fleshly, sinful, mortal men makes spiritual, holy, living men.” [1] Staying connected to Christ in Word and Sacrament is the secret to sanctified living – remain in him and you will bear much fruit, you will grow in sanctified, Christian living.


One question remains: what is the end, the goal of this sanctification, this renewal, this battle? There are two ditches of false doctrine we must stay out of. One the one hand, some contend that if you believe in Jesus you don’t have to put forth any effort toward holy living, since you’re saved by grace anyway. This is antinomianism – the teaching that the law has no role in the believer’s life. But Jesus didn’t die so that we could go on sinning, he died to separate us from sin and ungodliness. (Romans 6:1-4) The other ditch is call perfectionism – the teaching that it is possible for the believer – if you just try hard enough – can stop sinning completely in this life. This too is a lie. Unlike justification, which is done, finished, completed once and for all by Christ for us; sanctification is an unfinished, imperfect process. One that won’t end until we die. The only end of our fight is death. But, in death, comes the blessed release from this life of war. In death, God destroys the sinful flesh forever. He burns away every last shred of the sinful nature – and raises us back to life as new people, truly perfect people. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5) Only then will we finally be what God has declared us to be in Christ. So there’s a tension: perfection is not possible in this life; not as long as the sinful nature is hanging on us like dirty, stinking clothes. But perfection is, nonetheless, our goal. Not to become perfect in God’s eyes, but because God has already declared us perfect in Christ.


The war is won, but the battle rages on. This is life for we who are both sinners and saints. In Jesus, we are declared holy in God’s sight. That’s the beginning of sanctification. In Jesus, we strive to become holy in our everyday lives. That’s the middle. One day, God will take us out of this world and make us what he always intended us to be: perfect and holy forever. That is the end. As you go back out those doors to engage in another week of battle, remember that you don’t go alone: he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6) Amen.


[1] LW 37:101

1 Corinthians 12:3 - The Holy Spirit's Work - July 29, 2018

We are 2/3’s of the way through our summer-long study of the basic confession of the Christian faith: the Apostles’ Creed. We have plumbed the depths of Scripture and discovered anew that the Father is our Creator and Preserver and that the Son is our Redeemer and Lord. We have also discovered that this confession is, at the same time, objective and subjective. On the one hand, the truths presented in the Apostle’s Creed are completely outside of us – things that God has done, is doing, and will do. The truths we confess in the Creed are not subject to our opinions or feelings, are not up for debate, will never need to be revised or updated to match the ever-changing tastes of the world. They were true before we were born and will be true long after we die – whether we believe them or not. On the other hand, we begin each article with the very personal, very subjective words I believe. The question is: how do these objective, unchanging truths become our personal confession – the foundation on which we live and die? Enter the third person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. His work is to make objective truth our subjective possession; to make THE Christian faith my Christian faith. We will consider the necessity of this work and the process of this work.


In the minds of many, the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to dispense supernatural spiritual gifts: the ability to speak in tongues or perform miracles or receive dreams and visions directly from God. Apparently, this view of the Holy Spirit’s work had infected the Christian congregation in Corinth. Among the many issues that had divided the congregation was the false opinion that if a person was a genuine believer, if he had really received the gift of the Spirit – the evidence would be the possession of some special, supernatural “gift” of the Spirit. On the other side, if someone didn’t appear to have any special ability to heal or prophesy, he was considered a 2nd class believer – if a believer at all. (If you are at all familiar with the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement, then you know that this pressure on cultivating supernatural “spiritual” gifts is still present. The really scary thing is that Scripture warns us to beware that signs and wonders performed apart from the Gospel of Christ crucified do not come from the Holy Spirit but from the devil. (John 16:14; 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12)) While Paul will spend the next three chapters of his letter to the Christians in Corinth correcting this false view of spirituality and placing the gifts of the Spirit into their proper place – that is, for service in the body of Christ – that’s not where he starts, because the primary gift the Holy Spirit can give is not a heightened spiritual sensitivity or unique abilities, but the one gift that is absolutely necessary for salvation: faith in Jesus Christ. No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God (in contrast to the spirit of an idol/devil) says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.


When we say that faith is necessary for salvation, we have to be careful to walk the narrow Biblical road. We have to stay out of the ditches on either side. We don’t mean that Jesus’ work was somehow lacking or deficient – that faith needs to be added to make it effective. Jesus’ work was both perfect and complete. His holy life is perfectly adequate to cloak sinners of every age with the robe of righteousness God demands and his blood is the only payment necessary and able to satisfy God’s wrath over sin. Jesus is the only Savior we or anyone else will ever need. He has done everything necessary. Nothing more is needed; nothing less will do.


But in stating Jesus has done it all for all people, we need to be careful not to swerve into the ditch on the other side of the road: that because Jesus died for the world, all the world will be saved. There is only one way to receive everything Jesus died to win us: through faith. With Paul we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28) Which is why the Gospels are littered with calls to repent and believe. (Mark 1:15; Matthew 3:2; 4:17) Which is why when a poor jailer cried out to Paul: what must I do to be saved? Paul didn’t say, nothing, you have nothing to worry about, but believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. (Acts 16:30-31) Which is why Jesus laid out the simple rule by which he will judge all humanity on the Last Day: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)


But that still leaves us with some important and sometimes problematic questions: if Jesus died for all, why are some damned? If Jesus died for me, but I need to believe it, don’t I get some credit? If all I need to do is believe, what do we need the Holy Spirit for? Be warned, the answers to these questions are highly offensive. If the world would get wind of this teaching, it would probably try to destroy us on social media. Our reason and our pride and our emotions will not like it, which is why we must subject our pride, our reason, our feelings, and the world’s opinions – to the written Word of God. Christ alone won salvation for all people by his life and death; this gift becomes ours through faith alone. But this final piece of the puzzle – faith – is not something we can do or take credit for. We are not born with it. It is not a skill that we can be trained and encouraged to cultivate. It is not a product we can purchase with any amount of money. Faith is not the result of a rational or willful decision. We are not born spiritually neutral; equally capable of accepting or rejecting Christ. We are born unbelievers. We are born blind, deaf, dumb, and dead to God. We are Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones by nature. On this point – a point that is revolting to our pride and reason and emotions – Scripture is painstakingly clear. Paul wrote earlier in this letter: the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) In Romans he writes: 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) This is why we confess with Luther: I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. This is not an easy confession. Many deny it. Others try to downplay or twist it. But we confess it, boldly, because it is the clear teaching of Scripture.


Our spiritual deadness, our inability to come to faith on our own is something we accept based on Scripture alone. But once we accept it, it becomes fairly easy to see the evidence. Consider how many people witnessed Jesus’ miracles in the 1st century – and were able to see the empty tomb for themselves – but still rejected him. Consider how many really smart and talented people there are in our world, and how hard they will work for money and power and fame – for the best this world can offer – but how few of them spend even a moment trying to achieve the greatest treasure of all: eternal life! (Matthew 13:44-46) Consider how even Christians, even those who have been baptized and instructed and have confessed Jesus as their Lord continue to play with the fire of sin in their lives; call Jesus their friend and yet continue to dance with the devil; who claim to be a child of the light and yet are perpetually walking in darkness. (And then consider how difficult it is to lead them to see their sins, repent, and believe!) (1 John 1:6) Or, most humbling of all, consider how often our faith is weak; how often we know what God’s will is – and yet do the opposite; how often we struggle to accept the clear truth of Scripture. Yes, even in we who have been made alive by the Spirit, the evidence that we are, by nature, spiritually dead remains. All of which is proof positive that Paul is right when he states: no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.


In other words, apart from the Holy Spirit, the salvation Jesus purchased for us with his blood is about as valuable to us as a check for a million dollars – with our name on it – lying on the surface of the moon; as valuable as a beautiful piece of artwork is to a blind man; or as a cure for cancer is to a dead person. Apart from the Holy Spirit, all the riches of heaven, all the gifts that Christ suffered and died to win are useless to us, because we are blind to their value, ignorant of their existence and powerless to make them our own. This is why the work of the Holy Spirit is an absolute necessity. This is why Jesus even had to tell the disciples he taught personally that after he had died and rose he would send the Spirit of truth…[to] guide [them] into all truth. (John 16:13) While anyone can pick up the Bible and read it; anyone can walk through those doors sit down and listen – no one can believe a word of it apart from the Holy Spirit. But the good news is that with him, anyone, even a newborn infant, even the most violent persecutor of Christians (Paul), even someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, even we can believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior.


But no less obscure to us than the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s work is how he does it, his process. What would you say the first step in coming to faith is? Parents deciding to have their child baptized? Choosing to pick up the Bible and read it? Someone raising their hand and deciding to invite Jesus into their hearts? No. If faith is God’s gift (Ephesians 2:8-9), the first step in creating faith is God’s desire to give it! In order for anyone to come to faith, God must invite him, call him. It’s popular these days to think that we are responsible for making believers, but consider Bible history; how it’s never the story of people seeking out God; it’s always the story of God seeking out and calling people. From finding Adam and Eve hiding in the trees and promising them a Savior, to Noah’s proclamation of the Law and Gospel to the wicked world in the time of the Flood (Genesis 6) to Ezekiel declaring that God’s will is not that people would reject him and be damned but turn to him and be saved (Ezekiel 18:32) – God has been sounding the siren call to repent and believe his promises throughout human history.


And – except for rare circumstances (Abraham – Genesis 12; Moses – Exodus 3) – he issues this call mediately, that is, through human spokesmen, through his Word and Sacrament – and not immediately or directly from heaven. Sending men and women to proclaim the good news of the Gospel is the Holy Spirit’s work, too. He continues to send messengers to every corner of the planet to invite sinners to repent and believe. Jesus gives us a beautiful picture of the Holy Spirit’s work in this regard in his parable of the great banquet – where all are invited, but while the rich and powerful reject the invitation, the poor and needy gratefully accept. (Luke 14:15-24) And because God is responsible for extending this invitation there can be no doubt (and on the Last Day there will be no excuse) that the invitation has been extended to all to believe and be saved.


Wherever the call of the Gospel is found (whether in a worship service or a hospital room), the Holy Spirit is there to make that call powerful and effective. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who hears the Gospel believes it. Two things are true wherever and whenever the gospel is proclaimed. Some will always hate it and reject it, but by God’s grace, some will believe it. Scripture refers to this spark of faith as enlightenment: an awaking to the knowledge that we are sinners worthy only of God’s wrath – and trust that Jesus came into this world to save unworthy sinners like us. And this enlightenment is only and always due to the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, sparking the light of faith in formerly dead hearts. Through his call to faith, through enlightening individual human hearts with faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit sanctifies and gathers his church and preserves it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith until he takes us home. These topics will be the focus of our sermons through the end of this series.


It is enough for us today to understand Paul’s simple words today: no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. God’s plan of salvation was always perfect and Jesus’ work in accomplishing our redemption is complete. But no one could benefit from those gifts if not for the power and work of the Holy Spirit. May we in humility recognize our desperate need for his powerful work and appreciate his process for creating saving faith. Above all, let us rejoice that the Holy Spirit has called and enlightened us to believe that Jesus is not only the Savior, he is my Savior. Amen.  

Titus 2:1-14 - He Has Redeemed Me - July 22, 2018

For several weeks, we have been studying in considerable detail the person and work of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Only one question remains: why? There must have been a good reason for the Son of God to leave his thrown in heaven, be born and live in this ugly, broken world, and offer himself up to be crucified at the hands of wicked men. And there was. In the Creed the “why” is contained in two little words: “our Lord.” Martin Luther offers a beautiful and brief explanation: all this he did that I should be his own, and live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: Jesus gave himself to redeem us from wickedness, for himself, that we might be eager to do what is good.


Titus was a Greek convert to Christianity who had become Paul’s right hand man after he and Barnabas went their separate ways. (Acts 15:40) Having brought the Gospel to the island of Crete sometime after he was released from his first imprisonment in Rome, Paul left Titus on the island to organize the churches, train and appoint pastors (1:5), silence false teachers (1:10-11), and, above all, teach what is in accord with sound doctrine. (Titus 2:1) This involved three things: 1) convicting people of their sins; 2) pointing them to their Savior from sin; and 3) giving instruction in Christian living. And verse 14 contains a summary of that sound doctrine and answers the question: why did Jesus die for us? Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.


It’s no secret that for decades now, church membership and attendance in our country has been declining. This has been especially true among the millennial generation (roughly those age 18-35). [1] We’ve even experienced this right here at Risen Savior, where much of the membership business our congregation has handled over the past several years has involved releasing, removing or disciplining young people who were baptized and confirmed, but now have no interest in attending worship, listening to the Word, or receiving the Sacrament. While there are dozens of theories as to why this is happening, the reality is that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Each individual has their own reasons for abandoning their faith and there’s plenty of blame to be shared by them, their parents, pastor and the church at large. That being said, there is one fairly obvious and fairly common reason people leave the church. One that people don’t seem to like to admit or talk about. This reason is that while many are willing to accept Jesus as Savior – gladly receiving his forgiveness and the eternal life he promises – they refuse to accept him as Lord. While they want the benefits of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – they are unwilling to change and amend their lives to serve him. And this is more than just a theory concerning shrinking numbers of church members – this strikes right at the heart of the Gospel. Why did Jesus die for us? Did he die so that we could go on living as we did before?


No! Paul writes Jesus Christ gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness. The Greek is literally “from all lawlessness.” Christ bled and died to redeem us from a life of lawlessness, of disobedience to God’s will and rebellion against his commands. The question we must ask ourselves is: has Christ’s sacrifice had its desired effect on our hearts and tongues and lives? If we were to audit how we spend our time, money, and energy every week would the results confirm Jesus’ lordship in my life or would it expose the idols of myself, my job, my family, my pleasure? As Christian men and women do we cherish and uphold the distinct roles God has given us, or do we resent and arrogantly think that we are so enlightened that we know better than our Creator? As Christian parents look ahead to sending their children to school this fall – some for the first time – have we really placed the priority on their spiritual growth well-being, or has God’s will for his children been sacrificed on the altar of our own convenience? Does the way we dress, the way we joke, the things we watch and the websites we visit testify that we honor God’s gifts and rules for sex and marriage or that our hearts are ruled by passionate lust? (1 Thessalonians 4:5) Do we trust God’s promise to provide our daily bread enough to be generous in giving to the work of his Kingdom or do we effectively steal from him by giving only the leftovers? (Malachi 3:8) If God were listening to our conversations in the car, at the dinner table, right here within these walls – and he is – does he hear speech that builds others up or tears them down? To put it simply, does my life match my confession: is Jesus the Lord of my life? Because, let’s be honest, if Jesus’ sacrifice hasn’t had any impact on our lives – then what did he die for? There is no middle ground; either Jesus is your Savior and your Lord or he’s neither. Either he is the Lord of your life, or something else is. No one can serve two masters. (Matthew 6:24) If you, like me, must confess that too often I have rejected Jesus as Lord and replaced him with something else, then join me in heartfelt repentance – and then rejoice that Jesus has paid for those and every other sin and has given himself to purify us as his own people.


That concept takes us back to the Old Testament, when – out of all the nations of the world – God chose the children of Abraham; the nation of Israel. (Exodus 19:5; Deuteronomy 14:2) God took great care to ensure that his chosen people were pure and set apart from the world for himself. And he did it, in large part, through the ceremonial laws – laws that dictated what the Israelites could eat and wear, how they must cleanse themselves and their homes, and how they must worship. These laws served as a hedge or wall around Israel – keeping them pure and distinct from the unbelieving world as God’s chosen people.


But Jesus did not come a new law-giver (John 1:17), to set us apart with a list of do’s and don’ts. He came to purify us once and for all with his own blood. (1 John 1:7, 9) Having received that gift of purification through Baptism (Titus 3:5-7), through Holy Communion, and through the Word, we belong to Christ – not by virtue of obedience, but by virtue of having our sins forgiven. In Israel, God changed them from the outside in. In the NT Church, Christ changes us from the inside out.


Which leads to an issue that may be troubling some of us right now: do I really belong to Christ – even if my life doesn’t always show it? Is he still my Savior even if I don’t always serve him as Lord? The good news, the comfort we have is that we don’t belong to Christ because of what we do, we belong to him because of what he’s done for us! It’s not something we need to work toward; it’s what we already are! In his Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther gave a beautifully brief summary of what it means to belong to Christ, to be a member of his Church: Thank God, today a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd (John 10:11-16). [2] Belonging to Christ doesn’t rely on what we do for him – it rests on what he wants to do and give to us. Belonging to Christ means listening to what Christ says. (John 8:47) That’s how he rules in our hearts and works in our lives so that we might be his people, living in his kingdom now and forever in heaven.


Because when Christ is ruling in our hearts through his Word and Sacrament, then we will be the people he died to make us: people who are eager to do what is good. In our severely morally challenged society, “good” can be hard to define. “Love” and “tolerance” are used as excuses for all sorts of wicked behaviors. The devil has been especially successful at corrupting God’s institutions of marriage, family, church and government so that everything has been turned upside down. As redeemed children of God, we have an advantage over the rest of the world in that we have the law and the gospel. Not only do we have and know God, our Creator’s, perfect and unchanging will (the law), but the grace and love he demonstrated in sending Christ (the gospel) motivates and empowers us to do it.


Paul gives brief, insightful, and amazingly relevant guidance to help Christians in all stages of life know what is good. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Older men, you to be the leaders and examples the rest of the church looks to. You should be sensible and sober, not easily shaken and not liable to overreaction, and especially to be “sound” or healthy in three areas: 1) in faith – trusting God; 2) in love – serving others; and 3) in endurance – understanding that God uses both the ups and downs of life for the good of believers. (Romans 8:28) (Illustration: like ballast in a ship.)


His guidance to older and younger women is weaved together: likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God. Older women, you too are leaders and examples in the church. Therefore, Paul says that you should be dignified – living in a way fitting for believers, to avoid wasting their time with gossip and drunkenness – and any other selfish leisure activities, in order that you may be teachers – not only of children but of younger women; encouraging and instructing them how to build and maintain distinctly Christian marriages, families and homes – which is the good that younger women should be eager to do. (Is there any more practical, relevant guidance than this? In a time when being a wife, a mother, a homemaker is maligned as being one step above slavery, Paul is saying that being a wife, a mother, a homemaker is a noble task! And let’s be clear, Paul is not forbidding women to work outside the home. But he is saying that when a Christian woman chooses to get married and chooses to have children – building and maintaining a Christian home is to be their top priority. A Christian woman’s role is not to be determined by godless society, but by the Lord who created and redeemed her.)


Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. Do young men only get one sentence because that’s the limit of their attention span? No. But for young men who are filled with energy and ambition and testosterone and strength and desire; who can build cities or tear them down; who can save lives or take them; who can cherish women or abuse them; who can raise children or abandon them; who can be the church’s greatest resource or her greatest weakness – Paul’s advice is all-important: keep your tongue and your desires and all of your body parts under the control of your converted mind that is ruled by Christ.


Next, Paul turns to young pastor Titus, and, by way of application, to all pastors: In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned. Pastors are to be examples not only to young men, but to the entire congregation. They are to be pure in their motives (not wanting to become wealthy or famous), they are to speak and act in a manner that demonstrates the serious nature of the spiritual things they are called to proclaim, and when they speak, they are to proclaim the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth of God.


Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted. In a world that is constantly trying to pit employees against their employers, Christian employees are to be hardworking, obedient, respectful and honest. Why? So that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. We are not all called to be prophets in the workplace. But, hard work, respect, obedience and honesty will speak volumes to the unbelieving world around us – perhaps even drawing them to see and trust Jesus as their Savior and Lord.


None of the guidance Paul gives here is easy to do or follow. It is countercultural to our godless world and it chafes against our own sinful nature that wants to be in total control. It means completely surrendering ourselves, our desires, and our lives to Christ. It means making him Lord. But how could we give anything less than everything we are and have to the one who gave himself for us? Jesus died to redeem us from all wickedness, to purify us as his own people, people who are eager to do what he defines as good. May his boundless love for us lead us to always live for him. Amen.



[1] - in which Pew reports that 35% of Millennials are religiously “unaffiliated”

[2] SA XII:2

1 Peter 3:18-20 - He Descended Into Hell - July 15, 2018

For more than 1500 years the Christian Church has confessed: I believe…[Jesus Christ] descended into hell. Many of us have been repeating these words weekly, if not daily, for decades. But when is the last time we actually thought about what these words mean? Do we know? Would we be able to explain if someone asked? Do we care? Or do we simply rattle off these words because they’re put in front of us? If we are less than confident about the significance of our Lord’s descent into hell, there are probably two reasons for it: 1) this doctrine is taught in only two places in the Bible (1 Peter 3:18-20; Colossians 2:15), and 2) there are many divergent opinions and interpretations regarding what it means. Because there is so much confusion about it, and because it marks our Savior’s transition from his state of humiliation to his state of exaltation, this morning we are going to do something we don’t do very often, we will consider Jesus’ descent into hell; what it means according to Scripture and what it means for us.


Context is always important, and understanding the context here definitely enriches our understanding of this relatively unknown doctrine. Peter wrote this letter to Christians who were being tempted to abandon the faith because they were facing hardship. Like so many believers, they apparently thought that because they believed in Jesus and Jesus is victorious that they should be experiencing victory and endless joy and success in their lives here and now. But they weren’t. They were suffering. They were experiencing hatred and hostility from the world and persecution by the government. Their marriages and families were far from perfect and there were tensions and divisions in their local congregation. By all appearances, it seemed like the devil was winning and they were losing.


So how did Peter encourage and comfort them? He didn’t promise them that it was all going to get better. He didn’t guarantee that if they just really tried hard and really believed better that the suffering would go away. He didn’t say that they must have been really bad to be punished so severely. He calmly and clearly told them that suffering is an inevitable part of life in a broken, sinful world which God actually uses to purify and strengthen faith. And then, he pointed them to Christ.


We hear and say it a lot, but exactly what comfort can we find in Christ when we are suffering? Throughout this letter, Peter repeatedly makes the point that whenever we are suffering we need to remember that Jesus suffered too! In fact, he suffered in a way that we cannot begin to imagine and, unlike us, he didn’t deserve it. Consider this whenever you are tempted to complain about the hand life has dealt you: Christ also suffered once for sins in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. Jesus was perfect, and yet he suffered and died and was condemned by God in your place, to redeem and restore you, who rightly deserve nothing from God but his wrath. This is the Gospel, and the Gospel gives comfort in any and every suffering because it assures us of two things: 1) no matter what we are going through, we are not and will never suffer the eternal punishment that we deserve for our sins – because Jesus suffered in our place; and 2) Jesus promised that the world which hated him would hate those who follow him – so, if you are suffering for your faith, you’re on the right track! (Matthew 10:24)


According to Scripture, the Christian life proceeds in a clear direction: the cross, then the crown; suffering, then glory; humiliation, then exaltation. Peter summarizes: He was put to death in flesh but was made alive in spirit. Without going into a lesson in Greek grammar, the best interpretation of this phrase is that put to death refers to Jesus’ state of humiliation: the time from his conception to his burial when he did not make full and constant use of his divine power and made alive in the spirit refers to his state of exaltation: when he again took up full use of his divine power. (see also Romans 1:3-4; 1 Timothy 3:16) Jesus’ humiliation ended when his body was laid in the tomb. His exaltation began when he came to life in that same tomb.


But that begs the question: what happened to Jesus between his death and resurrection? Where was he between 3p on Good Friday and sunrise on Easter morning? Peter tell us: [In his exalted state] he also went and made an announcement to the spirits in prison. These spirits disobeyed long ago, when God’s patience was waiting in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. Peter makes three things clear: 1) after he was buried but before he appeared to anyone, Jesus visited a prison. This prison is hell, the place where the devil and his demons who rebelled against God are being held in bondage until Judgment Day. (2 Peter 2:4-5; Jude 6) 2) Jesus went there to make an announcement. The content of which is alluded to in the only other Bible passage to mention the descent into hell, Colossians 2:15: having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Jesus visited hell for a victory parade, a spiritual press conference where he announced to the devil and his demons that God kept his promise, he had come, he had and died for sin – and they had been defeated and condemned forever. And 3) the spirits were those who did not believe God’s promise in the days of Noah, those who scoffed and laughed when Noah warned of God’s coming judgment and promised salvation. To their horror and to their shame Jesus confirmed Noah’s message (2 Peter 2:5): he died for their sins, that they could have been saved – if only they had believed.


That’s it. That’s all we can say with certainty about our Savior’s descent into hell. And, because it is all that God has chosen to reveal, it’s all we need to know. We should not indulge in idle speculation or silly theoretical questions, nor should we argue or be divisive based on mere opinion or conjecture. Our Lutheran forefathers stressed this in the Formula of Concord: “this article cannot be grasped by the senses or by our reason. It must be grasped by faith alone. Therefore, it is our unanimous opinion that there should be no dispute over it. It should be believed and taught only in the simplest way. Teach it like Dr. Luther…he has explained this article in a completely Christian way. He separated all useless, unnecessary questions from it, and encouraged all godly Christians to believe with Christian simplicity.” [1]


You probably wouldn’t be too shocked, though, if I tell you that not everyone heeds the confessors’ advice to maintain the simple facts of Scripture. In fact, while many have concocted their own theories about the descent, others are determined to cut this doctrine out of the Creed altogether; alleging that any mention of hell is oppressive and offensive. To some extent, they’re right. Hell is an uncomfortable topic for anyone – and necessarily so. The doctrine of hell is the final and strongest proclamation of the Law. It is the consequence of impenitence and unbelief. It means complete separation from God’s love and never-ending punishment and torment for all who reject Jesus as their Savior. God fully intends it to strike fear and dread into the hearts of unbelievers and to prick the conscience of those who have grown careless or presumptuous in their faith – which is why the reality of hell is something that we all need to hear regularly.


But while the doctrine of hell is a horrific, terror-inducing truth, that is not how it appears in the context of Christ’s descent into hell. In connection with Jesus’ exaltation, it’s good news for us who face hardship and suffering in this life. There are four things in particular that Jesus’ descent into hell means for us.


Jesus did NOT descend into hell in order to give those who had already died in unbelief another opportunity to be saved. There is nothing on any page of Scripture that supports second chance salvation after death. In fact, it explicitly denies any such opportunity. The book of Hebrews states that man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) That’s why life – all life, and every moment of life – is such a precious thing. That’s why we want to do all we can to protect and defend life from conception to natural death – because it is the only opportunity anyone will ever have to hear the Gospel, believe it, and be saved. It’s also why there is an urgency for everything the church does – from preaching and teaching to evangelism and discipline – because death could come at any moment for any one of us and once a person dies he will stand before God in judgment and go directly to heaven or hell. There are no do-overs, no second chances – this life is all you get. So treasure every moment as a gift of grace.


Second, Jesus did NOT descend into hell in order to complete the payment for our sins. When Jesus cried out from the cross it is finished (John 19:30) he meant it. He had totally, completely, absolutely accomplished our salvation. The price for sin had been paid in full. Nothing needs to be added. It is sufficient for all sinners of all time. (Which, incidentally, is why the reformers took such strong stands against the Mass (the bloodless re-sacrifice of Christ) and the theory of purgatory.) So rest assured that your forgiveness is finished, there’s nothing you can or have to do to attain it.


Third, it means that we don’t have any reason to fear death or hell. Our Champion faced them both – and lived to tell about it. He let death swallow him but then he came out holding the keys of death and hell in his hand. (Revelation 1:18) We fear death because from our perspective death is like a dark room that frightens us because we don’t know who or what is in it. We fear the unknown and we fear the punishment we know we deserve. But every time you recite these words of the Creed, remember that Jesus has gone there and come back – death is not a dark empty room, Jesus is waiting there for you to take you home. And for the believer, hell has a great big CLOSED sign on it. Jesus has suffered the punishment you deserved – so that you never will.


And, fourth, it means that the devil is fully and finally defeated. By his perfect life and innocent death, Jesus has crushed his head (Genesis 3:15); destroyed his work (1 John 3:8); abolished his power (Hebrews 2:14); disarmed his demons (Colossians 2:15); and sealed his doom forever (John 16:11). The roaring lion that prowls around…looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8) has been defanged and declawed. He can do all he wants: he can tempt us, he can hound and hassle us, he can accuse us – but he cannot take the crown of life Christ won for us. Yes, the battle rages on, but the war is over. Satan is finished. We can sing boldly and fearlessly with Luther: though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpower us. This world’s prince may still, scowl fierce as he will, he can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him. (CW 201:3)


People sometimes wonder what that one little word is. But you know. It’s Jesus. From his conception to his temptation to his dying breath on the cross, he fought the powers of darkness as our Champion, he stood his ground, he carried out his Father’s will and he bore our shame and our sin, he died and by dying he crushed Satan and his power once and for all. He proved it to the devil and all those who died in unbelief by planting his flag of victory right in the heart of hell; and he stepped out of the tomb to prove it to the world.


The descent into hell then, while taught in only two places in Scripture, is a doctrine full of comfort and peace for us. It decisively marks the beginning of Jesus’ exaltation – proving that while Jesus died, now he rules not only time and history, but even death and hell for our good. And it assures us that the devil and all his dark forces are defeated forever. [2] Don’t let this doctrine lead you down the dead-end paths of doubt or speculation. Let it, rather, give you the courage and energy to go back out and face suffering, to fight the good fight, run the race of faith, to live as if you can’t lose – because in Christ, you can’t! Amen.




[1] Formula of Concord, Epitome, IX:2-3

[2] “It is enough if we know that Christ descended into hell, destroyed hell for all believers, and delivered them from the power of death and of the devil, from eternal condemnation and the jaws of hell. We will save our questions about how this happened until the other world. Then not only this mystery, but others also will be revealed that we simply believe here and cannot grasp with our blind reason.” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, IX:4)