Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 28)

November 16, 2014
Text: Matt. 25:14-30

            Stewardship is not about money.  God doesn’t want your money.  He wants all of you.  He wants you whole.  He wants you entirely and completely as His own, all that you are and all that you have.  To be sure, you already belong to Him.  After all, He created you, knit you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).  Before He formed you, He knew you (Jer. 1:5).  He redeemed you, body and soul, by the blood of His own dear Son, Jesus Christ.  He has written His Name on you in Holy Baptism, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He sanctifies you and keeps you in the one true faith so that you may be His own, as He says to you, “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:16; ESV).  “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Is. 43:1).  You belong to God already.  But He wants you to realize this, that all that you are and all that you have are gifts from His infinite goodness.  And He wants you to trust that He is an unfailing fountain of good for you, that you can use what He gives you faithfully, give it away generously to your neighbor and for the work of the Kingdom of God, and you won’t run out, because He will give you even more.  In fact, you can give yourself, as Christ gave Himself into death for you, because Christ Jesus is risen from the dead, and He will raise you, too.
            Stewardship is actually about faith.  In our Lord’s parable this morning, the Master is God and the servants to whom the Master entrusts his talents are God’s people.  What the servants do with the talents is a direct reflection of what they believe about the Master.  The servants who put their talents to work believe in the goodness of their Master.  They believe He is gracious.  They know that He wants them to be faithful with His talents.  They understand that He has bestowed His gifts upon them as a trust.  So they put the talents to work.  The servants are not called to be successful.  They are simply called to be faithful.  If the work fails, if their investments lose, they know that Master will provide for them anyway.  After all, the talents themselves are evidence of His generosity.  A talent is roughly worth 20 years of labor.  5 talents, 100 years of labor.  2 talents, 50 years of labor.  Amazing amounts of money.  And even the servant who only received one talent, well, that’s still 20 years of labor.  And they are given freedom to manage the talents as they see fit, as if the talents are their own.  But they are to be faithful with them.  For the Master will return, and then they will be called upon to give an account. 
            But the servant who received only one talent believes the Master is hard, reaping where He does not sow and gathering where He has scattered no seed.  He believes the Master to be a cold, loveless, unmerciful, and demanding slave-driver.  So this servant despises the gift.  He doesn’t want it.  He certainly doesn’t want to be accountable for it.  So he buries it, like something rotten, something dead.  He buries it where it will do no work for the Master.  He buries it so he can return it to the Master, just as it was given.  But the Master doesn’t give His gifts to be buried.  He gives them to be used.  He gives them for you to demonstrate your trust in Him.
            What do you believe about God?  Stewardship is a fruit of faith.  It is a result of what you believe about your Master.  Do you believe He is a gracious God who will provide for your every need, who has graciously poured out His gifts upon you to be used for His glory and in service and love toward your neighbor, who will rescue you in time of need, who will reward you in the end for faithful use of the gifts He gave you in the first place and bestow upon you even more gifts?  Or do you believe He is a hard God, a loveless, cold, unmerciful, demanding slave-driver?  It’s a struggle, isn’t it?  “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief” (Cf. Mark 9:24).  All-too-often you do think you need to bury the Lord’s gifts, your time, your abilities, your money, your stuff.  You keep it for yourself.  You are afraid there won’t be enough.  You are afraid the Lord will demand it from you when you don’t have it to give.  Sure, you believe God is gracious, theoretically, but for all practical purposes you’re not so sure.  And you’re reluctant, therefore, to put your money, your possessions, your life, where your mouth is.  Repent.
            Do you think your heavenly Father is unaware of your needs?  Do you think He carelessly and capriciously leaves you in the lurch when you’ve trusted Him too much?  Do you not remember Jesus’ words: “do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:25, 32-33)?  Has God not been faithful to you in the past?  Are you not alive this very moment because He has fed and nourished you, housed and clothed you, protected you from all harm and danger, surrounded you with people who care for you, kept your heart beating and your lungs breathing, and added to you manifold other gifts besides?  Do you think He will suddenly stop doing these things for you?
            Or don’t you know how precious you are to Him, that He would give His Son into death to purchase you to be His own?  Talk about faithful stewardship.  Our Lord Jesus received the stewardship of the Church from His Father.  He is our Steward.  And of those whom the Father gave Him He lost not one (John 18:9).  For when a sheep strays, He goes after it.  When a coin is lost, He scours the house until He finds it.  When a prodigal son wastes the inheritance, the Lord Jesus anxiously awaits his return, and when the prodigal repents, the Lord runs out to him to embrace him and welcome him home.  He throws a party, a feast, with great rejoicing, for this sinner was dead, and is alive again, was lost, and is found.  So precious is the Church, so precious are you to Jesus, that He gave His life on the cross as the ultimate act of stewardship, that you might not perish eternally where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, but that you live with Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity.  That is why you belong to Him: His blood and death.  “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.  So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).  Put your talents to work.  Give yourself for your neighbor.  Work faithfully in your vocation.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick.  Come to Church.  Serve in Church.  Yes, give money to the Church.  Fight, work, and pray for the Church, for your family, for your community.  Die for them.  You can.  In Christ, you are free to do this very thing.  For Christ is risen, and He will raise you, too.  He will not forsake you.  He will not leave you destitute.  Don’t bury your talent.  Trust your Lord who died for you. 
            He bestows His gifts, and to each He gives the right amount.  To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2, and to still another, 1.  He gives different gifts, in different quantities, but the gift is always generous, it is always undeserved, given by grace, given because of Christ, and He always gives it in wisdom and for the good of those who are His.  He gives you what He wants you to have, what He knows you need, no more, and no less.  Sometimes He bestows a cross with His gifts, and this also is a gift of His grace, for your good.  He gives you what is advantageous to your salvation.  He gives you gifts, and He desires you to use them.  He gives you what you can use faithfully.  And then He rewards you with even more gifts.  He says to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23).  He invites you into the joy of His Kingdom.  He brings you to heaven.  He raises you from the grave. 

            Stewardship is watchfulness for the Kingdom, watching and waiting for the Master’s return, putting His gifts to work before He does.  Jesus is coming back.  The end is near.  Judgment Day is when all are called to account.  Those who believed the goodness of the Master, who trusted in Christ and therefore put their talents to work, they will be eternally rewarded.  Those who believed the Master to be hard, unloving and unmerciful, and therefore buried their talents, will be cast into the outer darkness.  Notice that the difference is not work, but faith in Christ, which produces the works.  On that Day, what you did with God’s gifts will only be evidence of faith.  Faith is your righteousness before God.  Christ is your righteousness before God.  In Christ, you have eternal salvation and the favor of the Master.  And knowing that, you are not afraid to be a faithful steward over His gifts.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 27)

November 9, 2014
Text: Matt. 25:1-13

            Be ready.  For you do not know the day or the hour.  Christ, our heavenly Bridegroom could come at any time.  Any day could be the Last Day.  And even if the Lord Jesus delays His coming, any day could be the day you die.  Have a care for the future.  Do not be lulled into a false sense of security.  As so many in the world say (as they did in the days of St. Peter), “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3:4; ESV).  Do we not, for all practical purposes, say the same thing in our hearts?  Jesus is coming soon, we may admit, but He isn’t coming today, we think.  And probably most of us believe, deep down in our hearts, that Jesus will not come in our lifetime.  How easily we fall into spiritual sleepiness.  We begin to nod off.  We neglect our lamps.  The flame starts to flicker.  We do not watch so carefully for the appearing of the Lord Jesus.  That is why the end of the Church Year, with its emphasis on the Last Things, is so important for us.  Beloved, be attentive to the preaching.  Repent, lest that Day take you unawares.
            The 10 virgins were waiting for the Bridegroom.  They were there to meet Him with their lamps burning, to escort Him to the house with rejoicing, and go in with Him to the Marriage Feast.  Now, for the most part, there is no difference between the wise virgins, and the foolish.  All 10 were virgins.  All 10 were waiting with their lamps.  All 10 fell asleep when the Bridegroom was delayed.  There was only this one difference between the wise and the foolish.  And that is the oil.  Five were prepared for the future.  They brought extra oil for their lamps.  Five did not.  They were caught unprepared.  They were not ready.  Thus when the Bridegroom came, five had to go to the dealers to buy oil, and they missed His coming.  But five were ready, and they met Him with their lamps burning brightly, and they went in with Him to the Marriage Feast, where the door was securely shut behind them. 
            The parable is a picture of the holy Church of God on earth.  The virgins are the baptized members of the visible Church.  Remember, all 10 were virgins.  All 10 had been purified by the washing of water with the Word.  So the distinction to be made here is not between Christians and crass unbelievers.  Rather, the distinction is between Church members who believe in Christ alone for their righteousness and salvation, and hypocrites, those who say they are Christians and belong to the Church’s outward fellowship, but trust in something other than Jesus for their righteousness.  Perhaps they trust in their own good works, how they stack up against other people, their superior knowledge or talent, reason or wisdom, their being “basically a good person.”  Perhaps they think they are covered as long as they are on the congregation’s membership rolls.  It’s almost cliché how we talk about people we never see again after Confirmation Day, as if they’ve now graduated from Church, but as long as they have those Baptism and Confirmation certificates, that’s their “get out of hell free” card.  Don’t let this be you.  If it is you, repent!  That’s utter foolishness.  There are other ways to be foolish, too.  In fact, there are infinite ways to be foolish.  It is certainly possible to have perfect Church attendance and still be one of these foolish virgins, if you don’t believe the Word that is preached here.  Any way in which you reject Christ and His forgiveness and righteousness makes you one of the foolish virgins.  Examine yourself.  Repent.  Confess your sins.  And return to Christ as the only source and unfailing fountain of righteousness and life, Christ crucified, Christ risen and living, for you.
            The difference between the wise and the foolish is simply this: who has the oil, and who does not.  The oil is faith in Christ, poured out by the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Word and the holy Sacraments.  You received it first at Baptism.  That is why all ten are virgins!  They were all purified, forgiven of their sins.  They all had oil to begin with, and notice, it was given them by God.  And now you receive the oil in your every encounter with the Means of Grace, as the death and resurrection of Christ are applied to you, your sins are forgiven, and you receive His life as your own.  That means every time you hear the Word: the Scripture readings, the Absolution, the Sermon, the Liturgy, the Hymns; every time You receive the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Supper; every time you read and study Scripture at home, with your family, in Bible Study and Sunday School; every time you encounter the Lord’s Means of Grace, there the Holy Spirit is present and active to point you to Christ, there He pours the oil of faith into your lamp.  The wise virgins aren’t any less sinful than the foolish.  But they have the oil.  They receive it in abundance at the Divine Service.  The Holy Spirit pipes it into them in the Word and the Sacraments. 
            Now, it is interesting that all 10 virgins fall asleep waiting for the Bridegroom.  So all members of the Church fall asleep.  This could mean a couple of different things, both true.  It could mean that all of us get distracted by the affairs of this world, the stuff of this life, to one degree or another, and thus fail to watch diligently for the coming of the Bridegroom.  This would be that false sense of security and spiritual sleepiness we were speaking of a few moments ago; really, denial of the possibility that Christ could come at any moment.  Again, we have to watch that as Christians, by constant self-examination, repentance, and confession.  Or, it could mean death.  All of them die.  And when the Bridegroom comes they are awakened.  They rise.  Remember, on the Last Day, everybody rises from the dead, believers and unbelievers.  Believers rise to eternal life with Jesus in a new heaven and a new earth.  Unbelievers rise to eternal death in hell.  But everyone is awakened from the grave and raised up in their bodies.  In any case, when that Day comes, those who have the oil of faith cannot share with those who do not.  You cannot believe for someone else.  Each one of you must believe for yourself.  And on that Day it is too late to do anything about your oil supply.  There are no second chances to believe on that Day.  Those who believe go in with Bridegroom to the Marriage Feast, and the door is shut.  Those who do not believe stand at the door and wail, “Lord, lord, open to us” (Matt. 25:11).  But for them He has these chilling words: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (v. 12).       
            “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (v. 13).  How do you become wise?  How do you stay ready?  You abide in Christ.  For by virtue of your Baptism, “you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).  And by virtue of His Word in your ears and His crucified and risen Body and Blood on your tongue and coursing through your veins, you remain in Christ Jesus, remain in your Baptism your whole life long, through the valley of the shadow of death, and on to heaven and the resurrection of your body for eternity with Jesus.  You abide in Christ in connection with His Means of Grace where the Holy Spirit pours the oil of faith into you.  And thus possessing this God-given oil, your lamp burns brightly with works of love.  Faith always produces good fruit.  As Jesus says, “          I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

            Abide in Christ, beloved.  For the Day is coming when He will appear, when He will descend with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, with the sound of the trumpet of God.  Then the dead will arise, the books will be opened, and the wise who believed in Christ will receive eternal life, but the foolish who did not have oil, who did not believe in Christ, will be sentenced to eternal death.  And we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together in the clouds with those who have arisen, to meet the Lord in the air.  And so we will always be with the Lord (Cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18).  The Bridegroom is coming.  He is coming soon.  Today the Holy Spirit pours out His oil upon you.  In the faith of Christ, you watch and you pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).  You are ready.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

Sunday, November 02, 2014

All Saints' Day

All Saints’ Day (Observed)

November 2, 2014
Text: Matt. 5:1-12

            What is a saint?  An appropriate question on this All Saints’ Sunday.  Most people probably think a saint is someone who has little or no sin, who is always doing good things, helping the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and therefore earning merit before God.  A saint is a shoe-in for heaven, so the thinking goes.  Characters from the Bible, early Christians, those canonized by the Pope.  We certainly are all for doing good things, and we do call many of those in the Bible and the early Church “saints,” like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Mary, St. Augustine.  But that is not the biblical definition of a saint.  What is a saint, according to the Bible?  We heard in in our First Reading: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14; ESV).  A saint is a sinner whose sins have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has been clothed with the righteousness of Christ, a baptized, believing Christian, who is therefore in that lineup coming out of the great tribulation here in this life into the eternal and visible presence of Christ and of God before His throne.  Well, by that definition, you are a saint!  And so are all your brothers and sisters in Christ across the centuries and from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (v. 9).  So are all your loved ones who died in Christ and already stand before the throne of God and of the Lamb, with palm branches in their hands, who serve God day and night and are comforted by Him as He wipes every tear from their eyes (vv. 15-17).    
            Saints, then, are not what most people think they are.  Saints are simply those redeemed by Christ the Crucified.  It is a great paradox, but a very important one: In this earthly life, saints are at the same time sinners.  Simul iustus et peccator, is the Latin phrase, you may remember from Catechism class.  According to your flesh, you are 100% sinner.  There is no goodness, no merit, no worthiness in you before God.  But by virtue of your Baptism into Christ, whereby He raised you up as a new creation, you are 100% righteous, 100% saint.  Because your righteousness before God comes from outside of you.  It is Christ’s own righteousness, applied to you in His Word and in Baptism and the Supper, credited to your account, as if you did what He did, as if you are what He is.  That means God looks at you and sees the perfect righteousness of His Son.  And He declares you a saint, sinless, righteous, perfect, holy.  Christ took all your sins away and paid for them with His blood on the cross.  In exchange, He gives you His righteousness as a gift, and you are free.  You receive it by faith.  You will be rewarded for it in heaven and in the resurrection of your body on the Last Day.  
            And so you are blessed.  The Beatitudes, the blessings pronounced by Jesus in our Holy Gospel, are themselves paradoxical.  Blessed are the poor in spirit?  Blessed are those who mourn?  Those who hunger and thirst?  Those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake?  These are strange sayings, and much like the concept of saints, they are more often than not misunderstood.  We get them backwards.  We make them conditional, “if/then,” blessings.  If we are poor in spirit, then we shall be blessed and the kingdom of heaven will be ours.  If just mourn enough, in a pious and godly way, then we will be comforted.  If we’re meek enough, if we hunger and thirst enough, if we’re merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, sufferers for Christ, then we’ll be blessed by God.  And that’s wrong!  That’s not it at all.  That would make the Beatitudes Law when they are, in reality, the most comforting Gospel for those who live in this fallen world.  It is not the case that Jesus is here giving you more works to do so that you can earn your blessings from God, earn your sainthood.  He is rather pronouncing you blessed even in the midst of your sufferings, in spite of them, because you are in Him, and it is His good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.
            The Beatitudes are first of all a description of Christ, and then of you in Christ.  It is Christ, the Son of God, who becomes poor in spirit for your sake, clothing His divine majesty in the humility of flesh and blood, suffering for your sins on the cross.  Now, baptized into Christ, you recognize the poverty of your own spirit, your utter helplessness and inability to save yourself, the fact that you bring nothing to the table in your dealing with God except sin and death.  And you are blessed, because you are filled with all the riches of Christ.  The Kingdom belongs to you.  Salvation, eternal life, the resurrection, these are all yours.  Christ is the One who mourns over your sin, over the fallen-ness of His creation, over the suffering and death of His people.  He weeps over Jerusalem.  He weeps at the tomb of His friend, Lazarus.  He cries out for you from His cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  And you also mourn, you who are in Christ.  You have a tremendous sense of the fallen-ness of the world, and of your own flesh.  It grieves you.  Death grieves you.  Your sin against God grieves you, because you love Him, and you don’t want to grieve Him.  But Christ is your comfort.  He has taken away your sin, and given life to you and to your loved ones, even those who have died.  So you are blessed.  Christ came in meekness, gentle and lowly, that you might be gentle and lowly toward your neighbor, counting others better than yourself.  And so you shall inherit the earth, the new earth that Jesus gives you on the Last Day.  And so with the rest of the Beatitudes.  They are true of Christ, and they are true of you in Christ.  Christ hungers and thirsts for your righteousness, and so do you, so He gives you His, to count as your own.  He is pure in heart, true, clean, and so are you, in Him.  He has made peace between you and God, reconciling you to the Father by His cross and death.  And so you now make peace with others.  And of course, He was persecuted unto death for you.  And you will be persecuted, too.  That is the promise.  But in that persecution you are blessed.  You can rejoice and be glad.  They persecute you only because you are in Jesus.  It is Jesus they hate.  But again, yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.  So what is the worst they can do to you?  They cannot take you out of Jesus’ pierced hands.  They cannot take away your eternal life.  The Kingdom ours remaineth!
            Blessed are you, beloved.  Though you suffer now, in the great tribulation, you will come out of it, for your robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.  His blood has been poured out upon your sin-parched lips, to quench your thirst for righteousness.  His body has been placed on your tongue to satisfy you with that which alone can fill your emptiness: the Bread of Life, Christ Himself.  And what of those who have gone before, who have come out of the great tribulation and are with Christ?  They are happy.  They are in bliss.  For they see Jesus now for themselves.  They see God, and stand before His throne with their palm branches, and they sing: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!... Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen” (Rev. 7:10, 12).  They understand the Beatitudes.  They know that they are blessed in spite of the tribulation they suffered here.  For Christ has taken away their sins, and He is their comfort and their joy.
            Now when the tribulation becomes too much for us, when we are weary and burdened by sin and sadness, when the peaccator (the sinner) overshadows the iustus (the saint) in us, when a loved one dies, when the devil accuses, when “the fight is fierce, the warfare long,” then, as some of us heard at Nancy Erickson’s funeral a couple days ago, then “Steals on the ear the distant triumph song” (LSB 677:5).[1]  Through God’s holy Word, and here in the Divine Service, we can actually hear that song the saints are singing.  Because Jesus is here, with angels and archangels, and with those very saints, all the company of heaven, gathered around the altar, where the Lamb is enthroned.  They join us here around the Body and Blood of Jesus.  And we join them in singing the heavenly triumph song.  “And hearts are brave again and arms are strong.  Alleluia!”  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).  And since that is true, we are blessed, indeed… sins forgiven, saints in Christ Jesus.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

[1] Rev. David Fleming, Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, MI.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Day

Reformation Day (Observed)

October 26, 2014
Text: Matt. 11:12-19

            That Martin Luther did not die a martyr’s death is remarkable considering he had a bounty on his head for most of his life.  And why did so many want to kill him?  Because he preached the dangerous doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works of the Law.  That is to say, he preached, as did St. Paul, and as did all the Apostles and Prophets, as did our Lord Jesus Himself, that a man is accounted righteous before God, not by being good or doing good, but by trusting that Jesus’ death and resurrection are for him.  Your sins are forgiven because of Christ, not because of you.  And this is a matter of eternal life and death.  Those who don’t believe that Christ’s death and resurrection are for them, for the forgiveness of their sins, perish eternally in hell.  So this preaching necessarily means preaching against every false doctrine opposed to it.  And that makes people mad.  Luther preached against every man-made method of salvation, methods that were attractive and lucrative for the Church, methods that brought power and influence to the priestly practitioners of the Roman system of satisfactions and indulgences.  Luther was a threat.  So he was told to recant, to renounce and take back his preaching and his writings.  Pope Leo X called him a “drunken German” and issued a bull, a papal decree, declaring him a heretic.  He was brought before the emperor, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire at the Diet of Worms and once again told to recant.  It was here that he made his famous speech: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason… my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”[1]  “Here I stand,” he is reported to have said.  “I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.”  Were it not for Luther’s own prince, Elector Frederick’s plan to kidnap him and hide him at Wartburg Castle, Luther would undoubtedly have been burned at the stake for his faithful confession.  He did eventually return to Wittenberg and to his pulpit, but for the rest of his life, Luther faced the very real possibility that at any moment he could be arrested and killed.  Faithful confession of Christ is perilous business.
            “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12; ESV).  The prophets and apostles were martyred.  The early Christians suffered torture and death for refusing to renounce Christ.  This morning as we gather together for the Divine Service, faithful Christians around the world are suffering persecution in the Name of Jesus.  Beloved, do you realize at this very moment there are people in this world who want to kill you?  For no other reason than that you are baptized.  For no other reason than that you are sitting in the pew of a Christian Church.  Why?  Why does it bother them so much?  Why does it enrage them to the point of hatred and murder?  Because you won’t dance to the world’s tune.  The unbelieving world is happy over many things that make you sad.  The world mourns over many things that make you rejoice.  “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (v. 17), they say to you as they said to Jesus before you.  Your confession of Christ calls upon the world to repent, to mourn over living for the self, to grieve over rejection of the one true God, over idolatry and rebellion.  You’re telling them they are sinners, that they stand condemned before God, that only Jesus can save them.  And those are fighting words, my friend.  Why do they care what you believe about marriage?  Why are they so concerned that every Christian florist, baker, photographer, and even clergyman support and participate in so-called “gay marriage”?  Because they can’t be wrong, and therefore you can’t be right.  Because that would mean God is true and every man a liar (Rom. 3:4).  That would mean that their man-made methods of salvation, their conception of morality, their trust in their own goodness and righteousness, their belief in their own self-determination and their self-justification, these are all exercises in futility.  This threatens their power and influence, their wealth, and their control over their own lives and the lives of others.  And they simply cannot allow this to stand.  For the same reason, according to this world’s mindset, Christians must pay for abortions.  Christian doctors must perform abortions.  And preachers must not preach against these things from their pulpits (well, so much for that rule!).  For we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  We will speak of the Lord’s testimonies before king’s and shall not be put to shame (Ps. 119:46).  Whatever happens, happens.  Though they fine us, subpoena our sermons as they did in Houston recently, take away our tax exempt status, jail us, seize our property, put us to death… “take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth” (LSB 656:4).
            Because there is a Judgment Day when everything will be turned on its head.  Then all will know that Christ is King and the devil is a liar.  Then all will see that that tyrants and persecutors of this world had no power beyond what the Lord allowed.  Then all will acknowledge Christians for the royal sons and daughters we’ve been made in Christ, by His blood and death, by His resurrection, by our Baptism into Christ.  And then at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).  Things are not as they appear.  Christ has conquered every enemy, including sin, death, hell, and the prince of this world, the devil.  You will see it in the end.  In the meantime, we wait.  And we confess.  We confess Christ faithfully.  We confess the biblical truth proclaimed by John the Baptist and Martin Luther.  And we suffer.  We bear it patiently because the end is near.  Jesus is coming to deliver us. 
            Remember what our Lord says: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it” (Mark 8:35).  The Kingdom will be his.  The Kingdom will be yours.  Because that is what Jesus has done for you.  He lost His life to find yours.  He suffered violence and the violent took Him by force, arrested Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, accused Him, slandered Him, spit on Him, beat Him, mocked Him, pierced His sacred flesh, and compelled Him to carry His own cross to Calvary, there to be nailed and lifted up for the sins of the whole world, for you.  “Look at him!  A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” they said (Matt. 11:19), and they were right!  For He took our gluttony and drunkenness, our every sin upon Himself, and bore the guilt of it before His Father, offering Himself as our sacrifice of atonement.  He is a friend of tax collectors and sinners, homosexuals and abortionists, liars and thieves, and pharisaical “good Christian folk” like you and me.  He lost His life for your sake, that you might find your life in Him.  In Christ, and in Christ alone, you have life eternal and abundant. 
            So the worst the world can do is kill you.  Your body, that is.  Your soul will be in heaven, with Jesus.  They can’t touch that.  And on the Last Day, He will raise you from the dead, in your body, to live with Him forever in a new heaven and a new earth, where He rules, and there is no more suffering, persecution, or pain.  Maybe a little suffering now, in this life, wouldn’t be such a bad thing for the Church.  It would take away the distractions of affluence and privilege.  It would make us less concerned about making the Church “fun” and more grateful that we survived to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood another day.  It would drive us to pray with the Church Militant of every place and time: “Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly.”  It would drive us to keep our eyes on the Crucified, whose suffering sanctifies our own, baptizing it in His blood.  And maybe we’d begin to be a little more concerned about our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world who are already suffering for the Name of Jesus.  They are blessed.  Their reward is great in heaven.  For so they persecuted the prophets who were before them (Matt. 5:12).  We’ll hear that text again next week.
            Whatever happens, we’ll keep confessing Christ, for the Spirit of God will preserve us in the one true faith.  The Church will keep confessing and the preachers will keep preaching.  For our consciences are captive to the Word of God.  We won’t recant.  We won’t take it back.  We won’t deny Christ.  We will speak the Truth of God before kings and will not be put to shame.  For to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.  And to go against the Word of the LORD is deadly.  So here we stand.  We can do no other.  And God will help us.  He already does.  For we belong to Him.  We are covered in the blood of His Son.  We are marked by the sign of His cross.  His Name is written on us.  No one and nothing can snatch us out of His hands.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

[1] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Mentor, 1950) p. 144.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 24)

October 19, 2014
Text: Matt. 22:15-22

            Our Lord Jesus teaches us that now, in this earthly life, we do owe certain things to Caesar, to the earthly government that God has established for the ordering of our outward life together.  St. Paul tells us in Romans 13 that every person should “be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God" (v. 1; ESV).  That means that government is God’s good gift to us, to be received with thanksgiving and honored by proper use.  We call this in theology, “The Kingdom of God’s Left Hand,” which He rules by human reason, the coercive force of the law of the land, and the sword placed in the hands of human rulers.  He gives us this gift to protect society from descending into chaos, with each person doing what is right in his own eyes.  God gives the gift of government to approve what is good and to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer, again, St. Paul’s words (vv. 3-4).  This is a Fourth Commandment issue: “Honor your father and your mother,” and by extension, all who are in authority over you.  “What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”[1]  This is what we owe Caesar.  And so we should render tax money.  We should render service to our neighbor by participation in civil society.  We’ve been granted the marvelous privilege of voting here in America, and we should do so with our biblically informed Christian consciences.  Those of us who can should serve in public office.  We should honor our leaders.  We should respect their office.  St. Paul reminds us that we should pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2), a very important responsibility we have as members of the Christian Church.  We should support them.  We should speak the truth in love to them and to our fellow citizens.  And we should obey them in everything, with one major exception: When the governing authorities ask us to violate God’s Law, then “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).   Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21).  Our citizenship is in heaven, to be sure, but God has placed us in the world to love and serve our neighbor in the world, and to participate fully in the world as Christians, as Christ’s emissaries who work faithfully in our various vocations and confess Christ to those around us.
            But Jesus says you are also to render to God the things that are God’s (v. 21), and this is really the point of our text.  What is God’s?  Everything.  You are to render to God everything.  Your very self.  All that you are and all that you have.  No exceptions.  After all, you are not your own (1 Cor. 6:19).  God created you, body and soul, for Himself.  And in spite of your unfaithfulness to Him, your selling yourself to other masters, to the devil, to the world, to the sin that dwells in your flesh, God has redeemed you by the blood and death of His Son, Jesus Christ.  You were bought at a price (v. 20).  And now God has made you His own by applying that redemption to you in Baptism.  He has breathed His Spirit into you, so that by faith in Jesus Christ you are a true son of the Father.  Now you live under Him in His Kingdom, under His rule.  This is what we call in theology, “The Kingdom of God’s Right Hand,” ruled by the Word of God.  And that which you owe God in this Kingdom is comprehensive.  You owe Him everything.  You are to render unto Him everything. 
            But you haven’t so rendered, neither to Caesar, nor to God.  You haven’t rendered to Caesar.  You regularly break the speed limit.  You fail to report income paid under the table.  You don’t just criticize your leaders, you disrespect their office.  You so often fail to serve your fellow citizens, all the while patting yourself on the back for all that you do and for the model citizen you are.  And as for God, you have not begun to render unto Him the things that are His.  It is not just a matter of what you do or don’t put in the offering plate, though you should note how you think nothing of it when you spend $5 on a cup of coffee at Starbucks, but you feel oh so generous when you drop an extra five dollar bill at Church.  You begrudge the Lord the demands He makes of you, the time He wants you to spend in the Divine Service, in Bible Study, and in prayer and devotion at home.  His Commandments with which you disagree or which you don’t like.  His demand that you love the neighbor you can’t stand, forgive the brother who has sinned against you, live for others, live for God, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.  Repent.  You have not rendered to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.  You have not rendered to God the things that are God’s.
            But there is One who has: Christ Jesus, your Savior and your Substitute.  His rendering counts as your own.  He perfectly rendered unto Caesar, even in His mother’s womb, traveling to Bethlehem for the Census, for the tax.  He was obedient to the governing authorities.  He stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, submitted to his judgment, confessed that Pilate’s authority had been given him from above (John 19:11).  He submitted to the soldiers, bore their insults, their mockery, their torture, as they carried out His execution, crucifixion between two thieves.  And this He did, even as He rendered unto God the things that are God’s: Himself, all that He was, and all that He had, right down to the very last drop of His sacred blood.  He never sinned.  He perfectly fulfilled God’s Law.  He loved God with all of His heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And He perfectly loved His neighbor, loved you, giving Himself up for you, for your redemption and the forgiveness of your sins. 
            Therefore God, His heavenly Father, raised Him from the dead.  And now, incredibly, incomprehensibly, this Jesus, the Son of God, your Savior, renders unto you the things that are God’s.  He renders unto you forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, His love, His care, His protection, His divine help, His Holy Spirit, His divine Sonship, the inheritance of the Kingdom of God, heaven, the resurrection, and all things.  He renders unto you His Body given for you, His Blood shed for you, His Words spoken for you, His intercession before the Father for you.  Mystery of mysteries, He renders unto you what He does not owe you, to you who owe Him everything.  He renders unto you, that He might render you to the Father.  “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one,” He says to His Father (John 18:9).  He renders to God all that you are and all that you have.  He renders you wholly and completely.  He renders everything.  He renders you as God’s own Child, and as one who can pray with Him, as He has taught you, “Our Father who art in heaven.” 
            Now you are a citizen of God’s Kingdom.  And this frees you to render unto Caesar, to live in this world for the sake of the world.  Earthly governments will never be perfect and most earthly rulers won’t even be Christians.  America will never be the Kingdom of God on earth, nor will Israel, or any other nation.  In fact, many earthly governments and rulers will be patently evil.  They will persecute Christians.  They will rule tyrannically.  They will kill the unborn and the elderly.  They will commit genocide.  They will make marriage meaningless.  They will be cruel taskmasters.  But behind them, and in spite of them, and contrary to their wicked designs, God will be ordering and preserving the world through them for the sake of His Christians, for you, and for those to be added to God’s Kingdom by coming to faith in Christ.  So in spite of it all, do what Jesus and St. Paul tell you to do.  Pay your taxes.  Obey your leaders (but give your first obedience to God).  Honor them.  Serve them.  Love them.  Pray for them.  But remember they and you belong to God.  The earthly authorities may rule a town, a state, or a country, but God rules everything.  And He loves you.  He will prevail in the end.  You will be saved, and justice and righteousness will triumph in that Day.  You’ll see.  “Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!” (Ps. 27:14).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 22)

October 5, 2014
Text: Is. 5:1-7; Matt. 21:33-46

            By grace God chose Israel to be His own special people, His chosen race from whom He would provide salvation for the whole world, His royal priesthood, His holy nation, His precious possession (cf. 1 Peter 2:9).  He brought them out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea as on dry ground.  He was with them in their wilderness wanderings, with them in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, establishing His Covenant with them, feeding them with manna and quail, giving them to drink from the rock.  He brought them into the Promised Land, the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey, where every man could enjoy his own vine and fig tree.  He was with their armies.  He drove out the nations before them.  He won the victory for them with His own mighty hand.  He established them in the land.  He blessed them.  He protected them.  He delivered them.  And all of this, not because Israel was holier than the other nations in and of herself; not because she was greater, stronger, more numerous; certainly not because she was more faithful.  God chose her by grace.  He chose her to be His Church.  He chose her to be His Vineyard.  In our Old Testament reading (Is. 5:1-7), He describes what He had done for His Vineyard.  He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted choice vines.  He built a watchtower in its midst, and hewed a wine vat in it.  And what would a Vineyard Owner expect from such a Vineyard which He has so carefully and lovingly established?  He would expect fruit.  He would expect good grapes.  But what happens in this Vineyard is that the Vineyard itself rebels.  It rejects the love and the providence of the Owner.  It rejects the Vineyard Owner’s claim over its fruit.  Israel rejects God.  She rejects God in her idolatry, her running after other gods, worshiping them, trusting in them.  She rejects God by her wild grapes of injustice, bloodshed, wickedness, and oppression.  She rejects God by exploiting the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger in her midst.  She will not yield the grapes of justice and righteousness.  She will go her own way, do her own thing, do what is good in her own eyes irrespective of the Word of the LORD.
            So what is God to do?  He sends the prophets.  He sends preachers.  Some they beat and send away, like Jeremiah, whom they threw into a well, then into the dungeon, then exiled to Egypt.  Some they kill, like Isaiah, whom they sawed in two, or Zechariah the son of Barachiah whom they murdered between the sanctuary and the altar (Matt. 23:35).  And so all-encompassing is their rejection of the prophets, and really, of the Word of the LORD, they actually convince themselves they are doing God a favor by executing the prophets.  Stoning is the divinely prescribed punishment for a false prophet according to the Law of Moses (Deut. 13).  By stoning a preacher, they are declaring him to be a false prophet.  They tried to stone Jesus (John 10:31).  They stoned Stephen to death (Acts 7:58-60).  They stoned Paul, who miraculously revived (Acts 14:19-20).  But in each case, the stoning was not only a rejection of the preacher, but of the Word of the LORD.  It was a rejection of the Vineyard Owner.  It was a rejection of God.  And so our Lord cries out: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37; ESV).
            One would expect God to do to His Vineyard as He says in our Old Testament, to remove its hedge so that it is devoured, to break down its wall so that it is trampled down, to make it a waste, to give it over to the weeds, and to make it a dry wasteland (Is. 5:5-6).  One would expect God to do to the tenants of the Vineyard (the Chief Priests and Pharisees and Jewish leaders) what they themselves tell Jesus the Vineyard Owner should do: “put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Matt. 21:41).  But what does He do?  He sends His Son.  For He says, “They will respect my son” (v. 37).  Now, God cannot be deceived.  He does not send His Son in ignorance.  He knows what will happen.  And the great mystery of it all is that this is precisely His plan for the rescue of His Vineyard.  He sends His Son, and when the tenants, the Chief Priests and Pharisees, the spiritual leaders of Israel, see Him, they say to themselves, “Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance” (v. 38).  It will not do to have Him displace us in terms of power and influence.  And it will not do to have the Roman government perceive Him as a threat and take away our place and our nation.  The inheritance is ours.  He must die.  And so they take Him and bind Him and set Him before Pontius Pilate.  They betray Him.  They slander Him.  They bear false witness against Him.  And they cast Him outside of the City, outside of the Vineyard, where they kill Him, crucified between two thieves, pierced, bloodied, mocked, rejected.  And they think they have won. 
            But this is what God has done to save the Vineyard.  He laid waste the Vineyard in the Body of His Son.  He sent His Son to tread the winepress alone (Is. 63:3).  He sent His Son to drink the cup of God’s wrath down to its very dregs (Is. 51:17).  He sent His Son for the very men who killed Him, for the wicked tenants, the Chief Priests and Pharisees, for Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers, and for you, who have rejected Him in your own idolatry, who have pierced Him by your own transgressions.  He did this to rescue you.  To save you.  To make you His own.  That here in the Vineyard of His Church, you may bear fruit in keeping with repentance; the fruit of justice and righteousness, the fruit of faith, hope, and love. 
            The stone that the builders rejected, Christ Jesus, has become the cornerstone, for He is risen from the dead.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes (Matt. 21:42).  And now every person finds his death in this Stone.  You either find your death in His death, falling upon Him to be broken to pieces in your Baptism, and so find your life in His resurrection, or, in the Judgment, on the Last Day, He will fall on you and crush you (v. 44).  That is the warning.  Die in Him now, and so live, or live now, and be crushed in the end.  Reject Him and live for yourself, and He will reject you.  So the Kingdom has been taken from Israel and been bestowed, by grace, upon the Gentiles, that all who believe in His Name, whether Jew or Gentile, be the New Israel of God, the holy Church.  The Christian Church is now the Vineyard.  By grace you have been grafted in.  Christ is the Vine.  You are the branches.  If you remain in Him, and He in you, you will bear much fruit.  But apart from Him, you can do nothing (John 15:5).  So be warned.  You cannot separate yourself from Christ and survive. 

            But in Him, connected to Him by the life-giving sap of His Word and Sacraments, you live and you bear fruit.  You believe the Scriptures.  You believe the preaching.  Your sins are forgiven.  The Body and Blood of the Lord cleanses you and sanctifies you and makes you strong.  The pruning of the Lord, the sufferings you endure according to His will, these make you even more fruitful.  God has chosen you, by grace, to be His own special people, His chosen race, His royal priesthood, His precious possession.  He has purchased you, His Vineyard, with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  He sent the prophets.  He sent the apostles.  He sent His Son.  And He continues to send preachers to declare it to you: Repent and believe the Gospel.  Jesus Christ has come to give you the inheritance.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 21)

September 28, 2014
Text: Matthew 21:23-32

            The question is one of authority.  Who authorized Jesus to do and speak as He did?  Who authorized Him to enter Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!” (Matt. 21:10; ESV)?  Who authorized Him to cleanse the Temple, driving out the merchants and the money changers, and calling the sacred precincts, “My House” (v. 13; emphasis added)?  These are the events just prior to our text.  Who authorized Jesus to criticize and rebuke the Pharisees and Scribes, the Chief Priests and the Elders of the people?  Just who does this Jesus think He is, anyway?  And it is an incredibly important question, that of authority.  Because it makes all the difference between whether Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior… or a self-appointed, delusional (or fraudulent) maniac.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (v. 23).  Jesus answers the Chief Priests and Elders with a similar question.  “The baptism of John, from where did it come?  From heaven or from man?” (v. 25).  What authority did John have to preach and to baptize, to call the people to repentance, hear their confession of sin, and baptize them for forgiveness?  Was John’s ministry from God, or from man?  For if John’s ministry is from man, he is a counterfeit prophet.  But if John’s ministry is from God, then you must believe him, including and especially his testimony about Jesus, that He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  So the answer to both questions is one and the same.  Jesus’ authority to do and speak as He does is the same as that of John.  And despite the Jews’ inability to answer the question, the conclusion is inescapable.  The authority is that of the living God, who made heaven and earth.
            The question of authority is as important to you as it was to them.  Because you follow the authority you believe to be legitimate.  Unbelievers don’t think Jesus has divine authority.  They believe His authority if from man.  So they don’t follow Him.  You Christians believe Jesus’ authority is from the Father in heaven, and from His own nature and essence as God in human flesh.  So you believe His Word and you trust Him for the forgiveness of sins, salvation, daily help and assistance, and provision for your every need of body and soul.  You trust Him because you believe He has authority to deliver these things.  And so also you believe that He exercises authority in His Church through the ministry of the Word.  So you believe the Absolution spoken by your pastor.  You believe what he teaches and preaches.  You believe what you hear from his mouth about water being a Baptism of rebirth and renewal, about bread and wine being Christ’s true Body and Blood.  You believe it, not because you believe in the man under the robes, but because you believe in the Christ who sent him.  You believe in the divine authority of the Words spoken in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus.  The question of authority is vital.  Because the forgiveness of your sins and your eternal salvation hand in the balance.  This is a matter of eternal life and death. 
            The problem comes when we let our own authority trump that of Jesus.  Of course, we have no real authority, but we think we do.  And we think others do.  We are so puffed up by our own perceived authority, power, prestige.  We believe we are the judges of good and evil.  We say things like, “I just can’t believe in a God who would…” do this, that, or the other thing we disagree with or that doesn’t fit our definition of love.  And so we make the same mistake Adam and Eve made in the Garden.  You can just hear Eve saying to herself, “I just can’t believe in a God who would withhold from us fruit that is so pleasing to the eye, good for food, and able to make one wise.”  And Adam saying, “I just can’t believe in a God who wouldn’t want me to make my wife happy by eating this food she has set before me.  After all, it’s just a little bite, and how can God be so judgmental when my wife and I are acting out of love for one another?”
            The reality is, though, Adam and Eve had no authority to take and eat.  And the serpent had no authority to speak to them.  And the authority Adam and Eve thought they possessed, was, in reality, slavery to demonic deception.  Just as our own perceived authority is, in reality, that same slavery to deception.  In other words, there is nothing autonomous, self-determining, about this.  It’s all an illusion, a deception from the evil one.  The reality is, too, that our perceived authority is beholden to the unbelieving world.  We pander to the wise of this world, the elite, the influential powers, the culture, and we shape our opinions accordingly.  We trust in the media.  We worship our entertainers, even calling them idols.  We believe our politicians can save us from ruin, disaster, and death.  Because we trust their authority above that of Jesus!  And most of all, we trust ourselves.  Why is the authority of Jesus and His Word such a threat to us?  Because it threatens our idols, and chiefly the idol of self.  If Jesus has authority over me, I can no longer live for myself, for my own pleasure, power, and wealth.  If Jesus is my King, He rules over me by His Word, and my every thought must be taken captive to Him.  If Jesus is my Judge, I must confess I have no righteousness of my own, but only sin, rebellion, and death.  If Jesus is my Savior, I must give up all thoughts of saving myself.  I must admit that I have been deceived, that I am in slavery to the devil.  I must admit that it takes the blood and death of God to free me from my chains.  If Jesus has the authority, I do not.  And if Jesus has the authority, I must die.  I must daily die in repentance and confession of my sins.  I must daily emerge and arise from the waters of my Baptism to live before God in the newness of life that is the life of Christ, under His authority, in His Kingdom, with His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness as my own.
            The incredible reality is that this Jesus, God in human flesh, the eternal Son of the Father, through whom all things were made and by whose Word of power all things are held together… this One who has authority over all things in heaven and on earth, submitted Himself to us, for us and for our salvation.  He submitted Himself to the Chief Priests and the Elders of the people, submitted Himself to Pontius Pilate and the Roman Government, to the soldiers, the whips, the nails, and the wood.  He who is without sin submitted Himself to our sin, bearing its burden.  He who is the Life submitted Himself to our death.  He who is the beloved of the Father submitted Himself to the Father’s wrath.  For us.  For you.  For me.  To bring our sin to justice.  To cancel our debt to God.  To render the full payment for our sin by His Blood.
            But in submitting to this authority, He takes the authority captive.  He seizes the authority of death by dying.  He snatches away the authority of sin by drowning it in the water and blood flowing from His pierced side.  He crushes the authority and the very head of the serpent by taking the serpent’s venom into Himself.  All of that false authority is at an end in Christ.  He has taken the authority for Himself.  He is risen from the dead.  And He leads a host of captives in His train.  The tax collectors and prostitutes go marching into the Kingdom of God (Matt. 21:31).  For they believe the preaching of John.  They repent.  They recognize the authority of the preaching.  They believe the authority of Christ who forgives their sins and calls them out of captivity to new life in Himself.  And so you.  You hear the preaching of repentance.  You believe it has divine authority.  So you repent.  You repent of your idolatry.  You repent of your self-determination.  You repent of following after every false authority.  You confess your sins.  And now you listen only for the voice of Jesus.  You take every thought captive to Him.  For His is the voice of forgiveness.  His is the voice of salvation.  His is the voice of life. 
            All authority in heaven and on earth has been given by God to our Lord Jesus (Matt. 28:18-20).  It is on that authority that Jesus commands His Church to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching.  We are gathered by His authority into one holy Christian and apostolic Church.  And He is with us always to the very end of the age.  The question of authority has been answered decisively in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  He is the Word of the Father.  And with all the authority of Almighty God, He bespeaks you righteous.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 20)

September 21, 2014
Text: Matt. 20:1-16

            If the Master of the House were paying wages earned by his workers, his method would be madness.  Everybody knows you don’t pay someone who has worked only one hour the same amount as the guy who has worked twelve!  And the guys who were hired first, well, they bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat (Matt. 20:12).  It’s not fair!  The guys hired last worked only one hour, in the cool of the day, and the Master pays them as if they had worked the whole time!  You can’t run a business this way.  It’s lunacy.  And yet, this is how God does things.  This is how it works in God’s economy.  His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8).  In God’s economy, you are not paid what you deserve.  And thank God for that!  For what you deserve is condemnation, and death, and hell.  In God’s economy, you are paid by grace.  You are given what you do not deserve.  You are given what Christ deserves.  You are given what He has earned by His work on your behalf.  You are given eternal life and salvation, heaven, and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of your body on the Last Day.  This apart from your works.  It is all by grace.
            I suspect we will be surprised at who we find in heaven.  Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the Jews that tax collectors and prostitutes go into the Kingdom of God before they do; for when John preached repentance, the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.  But the religious authorities would not change their minds (Matt. 21:31-32).  They would not repent.  On this Feast Day of St. Matthew, we remember the tax collector sitting at the tax booth to whom Jesus called, “Follow me” (9:9; ESV).  And he did.  He became Jesus’ disciple, one of the Twelve, and eventually the writer of our Gospel.  And he gave a great feast for Jesus, at which the Savior sat down to eat with notorious tax collectors and sinners, to the utter offense and dismay of the Pharisees (vv. 10-11).  Why are they so upset?  The same reason the workers hired first were upset in our parable.  Those people don’t deserve Jesus’ goodness and mercy!  How could He eat with them?  How could He fellowship with them?  How could Jesus give the same reward to those people that He gives to us?  We deserve more.  We have behaved better.  We are the good Christians.  They are the dregs of society.  We live morally upstanding lives.  They represent everything that is wrong with society.  Jesus should reward us.  Jesus should punish them
            Repent.  As our Lord here reminds us, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick… I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (vv. 12-13).  If you compare yourself with others, judge yourself righteous by exposing the sin of others, believe you’ve earned your denarius, but the most the other guy is entitled to is a few measly pennies, then you’re a Pharisee.  Jesus can’t give you the healing medicine of the Gospel if you don’t know you’re sick.  He cannot raise you if you refuse to admit you’re dead.  If you want what you’ve earned, Jesus will give it to you, but woe to you.  Because all you’ve earned is eternity in Gehenna.  The Master tells the worker who complains to take what belongs to him and go (20:14).  No more chilling words could be spoken.  He is telling him to go ahead and depart.  Go ahead and remove himself from the Master’s generosity.  Go ahead and remove himself from the Master’s fellowship.  When the Master is God, such self-removal means condemnation.  It means hell.
            But the glorious good news here is that the Master wants you to be in His fellowship.  He wants to pour out His generosity upon you.  He wants you to belong to Him.  The reality is, you are just as unlikely a citizen of God’s Kingdom as the tax collectors and prostitutes.  If you don’t believe me, just examine yourself.  Your very self-righteousness exposes you for the sinner that you are.  But you also are covered by God’s grace in Christ.  You may have been hired with the first group at dawn.  You may have been baptized as an infant.  You may have grown up in the Church, faithfully attended Sunday School, been catechized, confirmed, and married in the Church, but the very same grace of God in Christ covers you that covers those hired in the third, the sixth, the ninth, and even in the eleventh hour.  The same grace covers you that covers those who come to faith on their death bed, the thief on the cross, the prostitute, the drug dealer, the murderer, and the petty thief who hear the preaching of repentance and Christ crucified for sinners, and believe it, and are saved. 
            Grace is not earned.  Grace cannot be merited, neither in your case nor in theirs.  Not by the first or the last.  Not by the greatest or the least.  The Master in the parable is gracious, and His grace is demonstrated by His own taking the initiative, going to those who had no job, no place, no purpose, no means of helping themselves or providing for themselves, and graciously inviting them to come and work for Him.  He gives them a place in His Home, at His Table, and a purpose in life, work to do in His Vineyard.  And on top of all that, He pays them for it!  He generously and freely gives, and then He pays those who simply receive His generosity and gifts.  That’s God’s economy!  And the payment is Christ Himself.  Luther says that the promised coin is God’s “Son, Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and every affliction.  In addition, He gives us His Holy Spirit and finally eternal life.”[1]
            So this is what God does for you.  There you are, standing alone, without any god to love you, to care for you, to save you.  And He comes to you.  He takes the initiative.  You do not go to Him.  He comes to you.  He seeks you.  He chooses you.  And He takes you to Himself.  He grabs you up by His Word, by His gracious invitation, by His Promise that He will provide for you, body and soul.  And He brings you into His Vineyard, His House, His Church.  He gives you a place here in His family, with His sons and daughters.  He cleans you up, washes away your filth, your sin.  And He sets a place for you at the Table.  All of this He does for you before you’ve done anything.  But He also gives you purpose.  He gives you work to do.  There are brothers and sisters to care for in the household.  There are fellow workers in the Vineyard to be loved and tended.  You don’t do this for pay.  You do this because that is what the members of this House do for each other.  And yet, the Lord does pay you.  Not for service rendered, but because that’s who He is.  He is generous.  He is good.  He provides.  He loves to pour out His gifts upon you.  And He loves to pour out His gifts upon your neighbor, whoever he is, whenever he’s come to the Vineyard, whatever the circumstance. 
            Your response is not to begrudge your Master’s generosity.  Your response is simply to rejoice.  To rejoice in the Lord Jesus’ embrace of the cross for you and for your salvation.  To rejoice in His triumphant resurrection from the dead.  To rejoice in your Baptism into Christ and the new life that flows in you, the very life of the risen Christ.  To rejoice in the Holy Spirit who daily and richly forgives your sins and gives eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  To rejoice in God’s grace toward your neighbor, in your neighbor’s welfare, in your neighbor’s reception of God’s gifts.  To take your place here in the Lord’s House, at His Table, with your brothers and sisters.  And then to go out and work in the Vineyard, not to earn your denarius, but simply to give thanks and to love and to serve.  And always, to trust in Christ’s Promise, His reward, His generosity to you. 
            The Master of the House, God, is not paying wages to those who have earned them.  He is bestowing gifts upon the undeserving.  He is bestowing gifts upon you.  And He does this in and through Christ, your Savior.  Thanks be to God.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

[1] “Matthew 20:1-16” in Luther’s Works Vol. 68: Sermons on Matthew Chapters 19-24 (St. Louis: Concordia 2014) pp. 71-72.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (A—Proper 19)

September 14, 2014
Text: Matt. 18:21-35

            It is pretty outrageous.  In fact, it’s downright infuriating.  Here this wicked servant has been forgiven all his debt, ten thousand talents, whether of gold or silver, an unimaginable amount that he could never pay off if he worked his whole life.  And he turns around and demands that his fellow-servant pay back what is, relatively speaking, a rather minor debt, a hundred denarii.  And when the fellow servant can’t pay, the first servant has him thrown into debtor’s prison.  Having been forgiven much, the servant failed to forgive even a little.  Now, the other servants were obviously disturbed.  They went and told the master everything.  “Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’” (Matt. 18:32-33; ESV).  The moral of the story is clear.  Having been forgiven, you should forgive.  Having received mercy, you should have mercy on your neighbor.  And keep in mind what God has forgiven you.  He has forgiven you so much more than you’ll ever have to forgive your neighbor.  Like the ten thousand talents, roughly the wages for 60 million days of work, forgiven by the master as if there never was a debt.  Verses 100 denarii, roughly 100 days of work, significant, but not in comparison with the 60 million days.  Yet the wicked servant will not forgive this.  You see the absurdity and downright wickedness of it in the illustration.  And yet, is this not a picture of what you do when you fail to forgive your neighbor?  Here you’ve been forgiven all your sins: your rejection of God, your adulterous addiction to other gods (the people and things you fear, love, and trust above Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the hatred you harbor toward your neighbor, your wandering eyes and your heart full of lust and covetousness, your loose tongue, not to mention every skeleton that you know would fall out of your closet if we opened the door to take a peek.  All the secrets you’ve hidden in the darkness.  God knows them all.  And He forgives you.  For all of it.  Because of Christ.  Because of His saving work for you.  But your neighbor said something mean.  Or disagreed with your politics.  Or betrayed a confidence.  Whatever it was, he hurt you.  And one thing is certain: You’ll never forgive him for it.
            Repent.  You are the wicked servant.  You’ve been forgiven a debt you could never possibly repay, not even with 60 million days of hard labor.  That’s the point.  It is impossible to pay for your own sins.  It took the death of God to pay for your sins.  It took the blood and death of Jesus on the cross.  And He willingly paid it.  He willingly suffered all of this for you.  You don’t deserve it.  You aren’t worthy of it.  But He did it anyway.  Because He loves you.  Because He’s just that good.  So now, on the basis of His forgiving your unimaginable debt, you are to forgiven your neighbor’s minor (and even not so minor) infractions.  And as bad as your neighbor’s sins against you may be (and there are some pretty horrendous sins we humans perpetrate against one another), recognize that they pale in comparison with your own sins against God.  Christ died for you.  Christ died for your neighbor.  Your sins are forgiven by God in Christ.  Your neighbor’s sins are forgiven by God in Christ.  God loves you.  God loves your neighbor.  If God forgives your neighbor, who are you to hold his sin against him?  If God loves your neighbor, who are you to despise him?  If God forgives even you, who are you to withhold forgiveness from another? 
            Now, what is forgiveness?  First of all, this is what it is not.  It is not a feeling in your heart.  Forgiving your neighbor doesn’t mean you feel all warm and fuzzy about him.  Of course, bitter feelings are sinful, and you should repent of them.  But forgiveness is not a feeling.  Forgiveness is a decision.  It is a decision not to hold your neighbor’s sin against him.  It is a decision to pray for your neighbor’s welfare, pray that God would bless him, pray that God would forgive him and give him faith in Christ.  And it is a decision not to seek the retribution your neighbor’s sin deserves.  On the other hand, forgiveness does not mean there aren’t temporal consequences for sin.  If, God forbid, I drive drunk and kill someone in an accident, that person’s family may forgive me, but I still have to go to jail.  If, God forbid, someone does something to harm your children, you may forgive them, but you won’t ask them to babysit.  And yet, in spite of those temporal consequences, you pray God would spare the offender the eternal consequences of his sin.  Nor is forgiveness an act, a good face.  It is not sweeping something under the rug where no one can see it, but secretly holding on to it so that it festers inside of you into anger and hatred.  If you need to forgive your neighbor, and especially if you are struggling with it, here is what you do: Every day you thank God for that person, and you pray that God would bless him.  It well may disgust you to do it.  That’s okay.  Repent of your disgust.  And then do it anyway.  Forgiveness is something you practice.  Jesus tells you to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44), do good to those who hate you and bless those who curse you (Luke 6:27-28).  That is what it means to live in forgiveness, God’s for you, and yours for your neighbor.   
            Forgiveness is to loose from the bondage of guilt.  It is to set your neighbor free.  It is to release him.  It is to untie him, let him go, send his sin away, like God did for the Israelites with the scapegoat.  The priest would lay his hands on the goat, confess the sins of the people over it, and then send it out into the wilderness.  The sins of the people were literally sent away.  This, of course, was a type of Christ.  This is what our Lord Jesus did for us, taking our sins upon Himself as the Scapegoat, bearing them out of the city, up the hill, onto the wood, lifted up before God as the Bearer of all our sins.  To forgive is to have mercy, as Joseph does for his brothers in our Old Testament (Gen. 50:15-21).  These brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit and ignored his cries for help as they sat down for lunch to consider what to do with him.  They thought about murdering him.  But instead, they sold him to Midianite slave traders, sold their own flesh and blood into Egyptian slavery.  Well, things worked out well in the end for Joseph, because God took care of him.  But they only worked out well after false accusations of rape and hard labor in prison.  Still, Joseph does the Christian thing.  He forgives his brothers.  He feeds them.  He provides for them.  He looses them from the chains of their guilt.  “‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.  So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’  Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (Gen. 50:20-21). 
            Now, there is something in Joseph’s story that clues you in to why you can freely forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you.  You can do so because you know that promise that God will work all things, even evil perpetrated against you, for your good.  That is what St. Paul writes: “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).  So even if your neighbor means evil against you, God means it for your good.  And He will take care of you.  He may not make you the ruler of a country, and you may not know how He has worked everything out for your good until you get to heaven, but you’ll see it then.  Then you’ll know.  That’s just what He does.  That’s the promise.
            But there is an even greater reason you can forgive.  You can forgive because Christ, who died for you, and who is risen from the dead for you, lives in you.  More importantly, you live in Him.  He gives you His resurrection life in your Baptism into Him, the life that He won.  And how did He win it?  By forgiving you.  By dying for your forgiveness.  That’s how He won it.  So with that life in you, you can forgive.  You can be merciful.  You can love those who have sinned against you.  Because even your lack of love and your inability to forgive has been covered in the blood of the Savior.  Don’t miss the order, here.  God doesn’t forgive you because you’ve first forgiven your neighbor.  You forgive your neighbor because God has first forgiven you.  The servant could have forgiven the debt of his neighbor because the master had first forgiven him.  You forgive because God has first forgiven you.  You forgive your neighbor for the sake of Christ who died to win that forgiveness.

            How often?  As many as seven times?  (Peter thinks he’s being rather generous, by the way, and by human standards, he is!)  Not seven times, but seventy times seven.  And even more.  Don’t keep track.  Because the beautiful Good News is that God doesn’t keep track of your sins.  He doesn’t put a limit on the forgiveness He extends to you.  Every time you sin, you are forgiven.  Every time you repent, you are absolved.  Every time.  No exceptions.  Not because you deserve it.  Not because your repentance is “really sincere.”  Not because you’ve proven yourself worthy of a second, third, or four billionth chance.  Because of Christ.  Always and only because of Christ.  In fact, let’s put it this way.  Whatever your neighbor has done to you, charge it all to Christ’s account.  That’s what God has done.  That’s what He does for you.  Jesus has paid for it all, all of your neighbor’s sins against you, all of your sins against your neighbor, paid for it all right there on the cross.  So it is done.  You are forgiven.  Your neighbor is forgiven.  You are both loosed.  You are free.  As our Lord said from the cross about your sin and your neighbor’s: “It is finished” (John 19:30).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.