Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, September 29, 2013

St. Michael and All Angels

St. Michael and All Angels
Sept. 29, 2013
Text: Dan. 10:10-14, 12:1-3; Rev. 12:7-12; Matt. 18:1-11

            The Prophet Elisha and his servant are holed up in Dothan.  The King of Syria is in hot pursuit.  Elisha must be captured and put to death, for by the word of the Prophet, God has been protecting the nation of Israel from Syrian assault.  The Syrian army surrounds Dothan.            When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, ‘Alas, my master! What shall we do?’ He said, ‘Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:15-17; ESV).
            So it is for the people of God.  The enemies arrayed against us are colossal.  There is the devil and his evil angels (more on them in a moment).  There is the world, which is hostile to Christ and His people, the Church.  There is your own sinful nature, which believes the lies of the devil and the world and is all too willing to capitulate to their temptations.  These surround the holy city, the Church of God, and to all appearances, guarantee our defeat and ultimately our destruction.  But if the Lord would open our eyes to see the spiritual reality that surrounds us, we would not only see the demonic hoards that seek to do us harm, but the holy angels gathered around us for our defense.  And we would realize that those who are with us are more than those who are against us.  Christ Himself fights for us and has already conquered our enemies by His death and resurrection.  And now He has given us the protection of the angel host, so that we need not fear.  We are safe and can rest secure.  Though the battle rages between the forces of good and evil, holiness and wickedness, the war is won in the blood of the Crucified.  And His angels have been dispatched to guard us in all our ways, to bear us up lest we strike our foot against a stone (Ps. 91:12). 
            Who are these majestic beings, the holy angels?  Well, they are not the souls of the dead.  They are not smiling naked babies with wings as we so often represent the Cherubim.  Nor are they the serene feminine beings we place on top of our Christmas trees.  They are fearsome creatures, mighty warriors who do the bidding of God, fight against the devil and the evil angels, and aid us in our Christian life.  Angels are spirits.  They are personal beings that do not have a physical body.  They are described in various ways in Holy Scripture, so that an exact description of them is beyond our ability.  Isaiah describes the Seraphim, one particular order of angels, as having six wings: with two they cover their faces, with two they cover their feet, and with two they fly (Is. 6:2).  The Cherubim, another order of angels, were charged with guarding the door to Paradise with a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24).  Likenesses of Cherubim were set over the Ark of the Covenant, where God dwelt with the people of Israel (Ex. 25:18-22).  Ezekiel describes these strange and wonderful creatures in his 10th Chapter: “as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went…  And their whole body, their rims, and their spokes, their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes all around… And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle” (vv. 10-12, 14; ESV).  So much for our Christmas angels! 
            The angels are neither male nor female, though they are most often described in masculine terms.  They were created sometime during the six days of creation, and sometime before the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden, there was a rebellion among the angels.  Since this rebellion, the holy angels have been confirmed in their holiness, they cannot fall; the evil angels have been confirmed in their wickedness and condemnation, they cannot repent.  Originally created as holy angels, Lucifer (Light Bearer) and the angels that followed him in his rebellion were cast out of heaven to spend eternity separated from God.  Our Lord Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18).  In his vision, St. John sees the evil dragon sweep a third of the stars of heaven out of the sky with his tail, the dragon being the devil and the stars being the angels that fell (Rev. 12:4).  The name “Satan” is Hebrew for “adversary.”  The name “devil” is Greek for “accuser.”  His name indicates his nature.  He is our adversary, “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  He seeks to lead us with him into eternal damnation.  He accuses us before God and before our own conscience, seeking to lead us into despair.  He tempts us to sin and unbelief and causes untold damage spiritually and physically.  St. Paul calls him the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), and Jesus calls him the “ruler of this world” who is “cast out” by the redeeming work of Christ (John 12:31; cf. John 14:30, 16:11).  Though the devil is a powerful angel, we need not fear him, for by His death and resurrection our Lord Jesus has “disarmed the rulers and authorities [demonic beings] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). 
            The word “angel” comes from the Greek “angelos,” meaning “messenger.”  The holy angels are God’s messengers.  They are His special agents dispatched for our physical and spiritual protection.  Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14).  And yet, at the same time they are guarding and protecting us, they are ever in the presence of God.  Jesus says in our Gospel, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones,” meaning certainly the children, but also all of God’s children, all Christians… “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 18:10).  That means that even as they are present with you, they are present with God, have direct access to Him, and do His bidding for your good.  What a comfort!  Their job is to help you, to protect you physically and spiritually for the sake of your salvation.  Some of them may even appear visibly among us in human form, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb. 13:2).  And these angels, they are a countless host.  As they serve and help you, they simultaneously sing praise to God in heaven.  St. John saw a vision of this in the Revelation: “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Rev. 5:11-12).  And what is amazing is that we join them in this reality when we gather around the altar to laud and magnify the glorious Name of God “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” 
            The angels help us in our worship, and as God’s messengers, they are always directing us to Christ and His saving Gospel.  So the angels announced the coming of the Lord Jesus to Mary and Joseph (Luke 1:26-38; Matt. 1:18-25).  They hailed His birth to the shepherds tending their flocks by night (Luke 2:8-15).  An angel rolled back the stone of Jesus’ tomb and was the first preacher of the Resurrection (Matt. 28:1-7; John 20:12).  It is the angels who will announce with trumpet sound our Lord’s coming again to judge the living and the dead (Matt. 24:31; 1 Thess. 4:16).  And if we only had eyes to see, we would marvel at the many and various ways they direct our ears to the hearing of God’s Word in Scripture and preaching.  Angels, messengers of God, indeed. 
            And what good news they bring.  Here you are surrounded on all sides by your three main enemies: the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh.  The yawning jaws of death and hell are eager to swallow you whole.  But you are of good courage.  You do not lose heart.  Because by faith you know that what was true for Elisha is true for you.  Those who are with you are more than those who are against you.  He who gave His Son into death, washing away your sins by the holy and precious blood of Christ, will not betray you into the hands of the enemy.  He has surrounded you with His holy angels, horses and chariots of fire, to protect you, body and soul.  And when your last hour comes and you take your last breath, the holy angels will carry you to heaven to be with the Savior (Luke 16:22).  You see, you are never alone.  Not even in death.  Christ is with you.  And His holy angels are an impregnable wall of defense around you, mighty warriors who fight for you.  And they and you have conquered Satan and his hoard by the blood of the Lamb and by His holy Word (Rev. 12:11).  Thanks be to God for the holy angels.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 20)
September 22, 2013
Text: Luke 16:1-15

            What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7; ESV).  St. Paul asks this piercing question of the Corinthians with regard to their gifts, material and spiritual.  And the answer, of course, is patently obvious to Christians.  Nothing.  There is nothing we have that has not been given to us as a gift.  Everything we have has been given to us by our gracious God.  But patently obvious as this answer might be, Christians have a tendency to forget.  So St. Paul stingingly reminds the Corinthians and us with his very next breath: “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?  If what you possess is a gift from God, then it was given to you wholly apart from your merit or worthiness.  It is by grace.  You didn’t earn it.  God gave it to you.  And He gave it to you for a reason, that in possessing it you might be a blessing to your neighbor. 
            Recognizing that every good you possess is a gift from God changes your perspective concerning what belongs to you.  Whether it be money, physical possessions, skills and abilities, time, or spiritual gifts, it has all been given to you by God.  And understand, God doesn’t give you these things so that you can hoard them up for yourself.  This is something we prosperous Americans seem to have trouble with.  First of all, we tend to think we’ve earned these gifts, effectively removing God from the equation… “Look what I’ve done!  Look what I’ve accomplished!”  And second, we have been deceived by the evil one to believe that the more we possess, the more money and stuff we can add to our collection, the happier and more fulfilled we’ll be.  And yet isn’t it amazing that you can work your whole life in order to acquire wealth and possessions, live like kings and queens (as most of us do here in the United States, even many of our poor), and yet feel unfulfilled, unhappy even, and believe that you need even more stuff in order to fill the void?  That should tell us there’s a problem.  The problem is that we have the wrong god.  We worship our money.  We worship our stuff.  We worship ourselves.  And we worship this unholy trinity by hoarding it all up, keeping it all (or at least most of it) for the self, failing to help our neighbor in need and trust that God is a never-failing fountain of good who will continue to provide for all our needs that we might be a blessing to our neighbor.
            Jesus isn’t commending dishonesty or cheating in the parable He tells us this morning.  His point is simply this: Even the children of the world (that is to say, unbelievers) know how to use unrighteous wealth to make friends.  A little generosity goes a long way.  But, Jesus says, the children of light (that’s the believers, that’s you and me), we tend to forget this.  If even the dishonest manager knows that his generosity will work for his benefit, surely you Christians ought to know that giving generously results in God’s abundant blessing not only upon the receiver of your generosity, but also, and perhaps even more so, upon you.  As you empty yourself for the sake of the other, God fills you ever more abundantly, that you might give even more.  He’s never going to stop giving to you.  He will not suddenly begin to withhold His goodness from you.  Now, I’m not saying that if you give an extra $100 today, you’ll receive a check in the mail for $150 tomorrow.  Some so-called Christian teachers (they’re really false teachers!) say silly things like this, and their teaching is dangerous.  We call them theologians of glory.  The idea is that if you just serve God enough and believe hard enough, then He’ll give you a break.  He’ll pour out His blessings upon you.  You’ll be rich and healthy, living the good life.  No, it doesn’t work that way.  But if God is your God, you can trust that He’ll give you everything you need for this body and life and for you to be a blessing to your neighbor.  Notice I didn’t say He’ll give you everything you want (and we Americans have trouble distinguishing between our wants and needs).  But He will give you what you need.  And He will give it to you so that you can be faithful with it, which is to say, so that you can help your neighbor with it.  Remember that you are just a steward of all the things God gives you, all of which really belongs to Him.  He will bless you so that you can be a blessing. 
            Now, if wealth is your god (we’ll use the biblical name here for this idol: Mammon)… if Mammon is your god, then you won’t want to use what you’ve been given for the good of your neighbor.  Because you’ll be afraid that it will run out.  You’ll be afraid there is not enough for you if you share.  And in fact there won’t be enough for you, because the thing about Mammon worship is, it always holds forth the promise that if you just had a little more it would be enough, but then there’s never enough because you always want just a little bit more.  But if God is your God, then your whole perspective changes.  Then you have enough, whatever your circumstances, because you have God.  You have Christ.  You have before you this God who has given Himself into death and hell for your eternal life and salvation.  For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).  What is St. Paul saying here?  That Almighty God took on flesh in the womb of the Virgin to become one with you, to take your sin upon Himself and pay for it in His death on the cross.  Again, St. Paul to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).  Don’t you think for a moment that God is going to forsake you!  Not now, not in your time of need!  He will provide.  And, by the way, do you know how He will provide for you?  Probably not through some spectacular miracle like unfailing jars of oil or the multiplication of loaves and fishes.  He could do that, and He has.  But mostly He provides for you through your neighbor.  And you’ve been on the receiving end of that charity.  Now, some of you might say, “What?!  I can’t remember a time I’ve ever had to take charity from anyone!”  Yes, you have.  You were born naked and screaming, and everything in the world had to be done for you and provided for you by your mother and father or someone else who stepped into that role.  You had to be fed, clothed, sheltered, taught, and your parents had to do all sorts of things for you that grossed them out.  And do you know why they did it?  Because God called them to do it in the office of parent.  God did all of this for you through the hands of your parents.  Their parents did it for them.  They did it for you.  Perhaps you’ve done it, or are doing it now, or will do it for your own children.  They are the neighbor nearest to you, whom you are called to help.  God cares for you through the vocation of your neighbor.  And God cares for your neighbor through your vocation.  Your family, the neighbors who literally live next door, your church family, those you work with or go to school with, your friends, everyone with whom God places you in relationship.  You are called to serve them.  To be a blessing to them.  And they are called to serve you.  To be a blessing for you.  And in this way God provides for your needs.  The model is Jesus Himself, who emptied Himself of His glory and of His very life for you.  So you now empty yourself for your neighbor, in trust that God will fill you, even as He raised Jesus Christ from the dead.  You can be a living sacrifice for your neighbor, or even a dead one, because you know that in the end Jesus Christ will raise you.
            The reality is that God has given you everything you have.  Sure you’ve had to work.  That’s one of the ways God provides.  Sometimes He provides you with a cross, such as lack of work or lack of money, or an illness, or some other suffering, so that you’ll realize you’re entirely dependent upon Him for everything.  It all comes from Him.  Every penny.  Every breath.  Every beat of your fragile heart.  But He is faithful.  He provides.  Luther gives us pure Gospel in his explanation of the 1st Article of the Creed.  It’s worth hearing again in full: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.  What does this mean?  I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.  He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.  He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil.  All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me” (Luther’s Small Catechism [St. Louis: Concordia, 1986]).  Now, after all that Gospel, all these things that God freely gives us (and by the way, what isn’t included in that list?), we are reminded of our Christian duty: “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”  And that means loving and serving my neighbor.  Because God doesn’t need my good works, but my neighbor does.  My neighbor needs my prayers.  He needs my hands to help, my food to be full, my clothing to be covered, my money to purchase the things that are necessary for this body and life, as well as my support for the preaching of the Gospel so that he may hear of Christ.  And I can help him freely and joyfully because Mammon is not my God.  My God is the God who made heaven and earth and from whom every good and perfect gift flows.  He is the God who gave His Son Jesus to die for the forgiveness of all of my sins, including my stinginess and selfishness, my failure to help my neighbor and love him as myself, the God who raised my Savior Jesus from the dead, that I might have new life.  And so recognizing that everything I have is a gift from God, and that God will never fail to provide for me, I can give.  I can give generously.  I can give sacrificially.  Because God will never forsake me.  My sins are covered by the blood of Christ, who loved His neighbor, loved me, to death… His own death on the cross.  And because of that, my brothers and sisters in Christ will receive me when I die into the eternal dwellings.  And so you.  You can give your all because Christ Jesus gave His all for you.  And in Him you have eternal life.  This is most certainly true.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 19)
September 15, 2013
Text: Luke 15:1-10

            “Jesus sinners doth receive” (LSB 609:1).  This fact is maddening to Pharisees, but the greatest comfort to us who believe what we have just said of ourselves: that we are by nature sinful and unclean; that we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone; that we justly deserve God’s present punishment now, in this earthly life, and His eternal punishment in hell.  Jesus receives even you and me.  And that’s grace.  That is God freely bestowing upon us His undeserved kindness and love on account of the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is now risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity.  Jesus took our sin and death upon Himself.  He became a man, became flesh, born of the Virgin Mary, that He might do this very thing.  He takes it all upon Himself and bears it to Golgotha, where He suffers our condemnation and dies our death.  God’s justice must be satisfied.  If our God is to be a just God, He cannot simply sweep our sin under the rug and pretend it never happened.  He must punish sin.  Otherwise He hasn’t really done anything about it.  And so He does punish our sin.  On the cross.  God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son.  He sent His Son to take our place.  That is grace.  And now our God, our Jesus, receives sinners, receives you, receives me, in His Kingdom, at His Table.  And the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven rejoice.
            The great scandal of all this is you didn’t do a thing to deserve it.  In fact, you did anything and everything possible to NOT deserve it.  That’s what you did.  And so all the doing that merits the forgiveness of sins and a seat at the Table is accomplished by Jesus alone.  For you.  He does it all.  “Well, there’s got to be more to it than that,” we object.  “Surely we have to do something.  At least we have to choose to be Jesus’ disciple, dedicate our lives and our hearts to Him, clean up our act, stop cussing, be better spouses and parents or children.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for cleaning up our language and our behavior, and I’m certainly all for family values.  But here’s the scandal: If you did all that… If you dedicated your life and heart to living for Jesus, if nothing but pristine pious language came from your mouth, you were the nicest and kindest person anyone had ever met, generous with time and money, a fantastic husband and father, wife and mother, son or daughter, the kind of person every one of us wants to be… If you did all that and brought it before the throne of God for His approval… you would be a Pharisee.  The Pharisees were great people when judged by human standards.  The problem is, they trusted in their own goodness, their own religiosity, their piety, to earn God’s favor.  And they were absolutely blind to their sin.  They were outwardly above reproach.  But on the inside they were filled with the same lust and hatred and selfishness as the rest of us poor schmucks.  Jesus described them as whitewashed tombs: beautiful on the outside, but inside full of the rot and stink of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27).  Jesus simply wasn’t impressed by their outward righteousness.  And that’s why they hated Him and sought to put Him to death.  I mean, here they had done all this work, meticulously keeping the Law of Moses and all sorts of man-made regulations devised to put a hedge around the Law so that there would be no possibility of transgressing it.  And Jesus tells them that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 Pharisees and Scribes who need no repentance (Luke 15:7, 10)… or so they think!  Jesus, contrary to every social and religious scruple, goes to the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the dregs of society.  He receives them, associates with them, touches them.  And He eats with them.  The dishonorable.  The dirty.  And this is really good news for us poor miserable sinners.  He receives us!  We’ve done nothing to deserve Jesus’ reception.  And that’s just the point.  You can’t deserve it.  You can do nothing to earn it.  You cannot acquire it by your own efforts. You can only have it bestowed upon you by God, in Christ, by grace.
            The sheep in Jesus’ parable could do nothing about being lost.  Even if the sheep resolved within himself to behave better and be dedicated to the Shepherd, he wouldn’t magically be transported back to the flock.  Actually, what happens when sheep become lost is that they are completely incapacitated with fear.  They can’t retrace their steps.  They can’t walk.  They can’t even stand.  That’s why when you see pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, He’s carrying the sheep, like the guy on the front of your bulletin who is carrying the sheep on his shoulders.  He has to.  The sheep has no ability to come back on his own.  Then there’s the coin.  What can the coin possibly do about finding itself?  All a lost coin can do is lie there in the dust and filth of the house until it is found.  That’s you, beloved.  You’re the incapacitated sheep, the coin laying in the filth, unable to do anything about it.  But the good news is, Jesus is the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep until He finds it.  He comes after you.  He seeks you out, comes to you right where you are, picks you up, and carries you home to His sheepfold.  Jesus is the Bridegroom who sends His Bride, the Church, the woman of the parable, to shine the light of the Holy Gospel throughout the filthy house, to sweep away the dirt and the grime and find you.  “I once was lost, but now am found,” as the old hymn goes.  Notice that the lost one is purely passive.  Who takes all the initiative?  Jesus does.  He finds you where you are and He brings you home. 
            That’s the definition of repentance, by the way.  To be brought back.  Jesus gets all the credit for your repentance, too.  He repents you, so to speak.  You don’t come back on your own initiative any more than the sheep comes back to the Shepherd or the coin comes back to the woman.  He comes and gets you.  He brings you.  Grace.  And then He throws a Feast for you.  Now, imagine this: Dumb old sheep wanders away.  It’s his own stupid fault.  The Shepherd has to trudge through the hills and ravines to find the sheep and then carry the smelly animal back to the flock.  And what does He do when He gets back?  He throws a party in the sheep’s honor!  I mean, it’s absurd.  That’s what Jesus does for you.  This is the party.  This is the Table He has set (the altar).  For you.  Because there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who think they need no repentance.  Indeed, heaven joins us, quite literally, here at this Table, at this Meal, with this Host who here gives us His true Body and Blood for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. 
            The saying is trustworthy,” writes St. Paul, “and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15; ESV).  Paul, the Pharisee, who stood by giving his approval while Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:58, 8:1), who persecuted the Church of God, arresting Christians and bringing them bound to Jerusalem, upon this man God bestowed His grace in Christ Jesus.  He forgave Paul all His sins, called Him to be baptized, to be a Christian, and in fact to be the great Apostle to the Gentiles.  The Chief of sinners is forgiven all his sins.  He is declared a saint with the righteousness and holiness of Another, of Christ Himself.  Jesus sinners doth receive.  And so you.  Chief of sinners though you be, Jesus shed His blood for you.  Jesus receives you here today at His Table.  Not because you deserve it.  Not because He finds something in you that is worthy of such a gift.  But because He is gracious and merciful.  Because He loves you.  Because He’s given Himself into death for you.  In His death all your sins are forgiven.  And in your Baptism into His death and resurrection, you are made a member of God’s family.  You belong at the family Table.  There is always a place for you here where Jesus receives you, pierced hands outstretched. “Here is hope for all who grieve: Jesus sinners doth receive.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 18)
September 8, 2013
Text: Luke 14:25-35

            Do you have what it takes?  Can you do it?  What will it cost?  Do you have the resources?  What obstacles will you face?  When you undertake a project or accept a challenge, these questions must first be answered.  Not to address them would be foolish.  It would be to invite the criticism and mockery of your neighbors.  It would probably lead to failure.  It may even lead to death.  And what is true of your earthly endeavors in this sense is also true of your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Do you have what it takes to be Jesus’ disciple?  Can you persevere in the Christian faith and life?  What will it cost you to follow Him?  Do you have the resources that it takes to be faithful?  And what obstacles will seek to prevent you from being a Christian?  Well, to begin with the last question, the obstacles are tremendous.  The whole world is an obstacle.  The unbelieving world will mock you for your faith.  “You believe what, now?  You can’t be serious.  If you really believe in that, you must be stupid.  Oh, and you must be a hater, because you don’t tolerate all the beliefs and behaviors of everybody else.”  Not only that, the world will try to entice you with worldly allurements: money, sex, power, fame, anything to take you away from God, to take your eyes off of Christ.  Then there is the devil.  Oh, he is a powerful adversary.  Do you really think you can win in the battle against him?  He’s a sly one, deceiving you with his lies that you can be like God, that you can determine for yourself what is good and what is evil, that you can be faithful to God AND other gods, that you can be a Christian AND worship yourself.  And you believe it, because your biggest obstacle is your own sinful nature, your flesh, your old Adam, who is by nature an unbeliever.  He’s dead in his trespasses and sins.  That’s who you are outside of Christ, a walking dead man who only has the freedom to choose sin and death, who hangs on every word of the devil and the world, stumbling along in spiritual blindness and hating God.  You don’t believe me?  Believe St. Paul: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14; ESV)… “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ… having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
            So that being the case, do you have what it takes?  You most certainly do not.  Can you do it?  No, you can’t.  What will it cost?  Too much.  You’re not willing to give up your idols and die to yourself.  Do you have the resources?  Remember, you have nothing to bring to the table but your sin and death and condemnation.  And here we are faced with the Scriptural truth that our will is bound in spiritual matters.  We can only choose sin.  We can only choose death.  We cannot choose Jesus.  “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him” (Luther’s Small Catechism).  If you are to be saved, Jesus must choose you.  And He does.  His Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith of Jesus Christ, the Savior.  You don’t have what it takes, but Jesus does.  You are unable to be Jesus’ disciple, but He makes you one anyway, in your Baptism, by His Word, in His Supper.  By grace.  This is what it means to be saved by grace alone, through faith alone, apart from works.  If you were able to become Jesus’ disciples on your own, that would be salvation by works, at least the work of coming to faith.  But if Jesus must give you faith, you who cannot otherwise believe in Him, and if He gives you that faith as a gift, then it is by grace, apart from works.  And that is what the Bible teaches us about our salvation. 
            It makes sense.  I mean, look at the cost of following Jesus.  Counting the cost, none of us in our right minds would choose to be Jesus’ disciple.  If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26)?  That’s crazy talk!  Well, we should note that this is a Hebraism, a Jewish way of speaking, and in this context “hate” is not an emotion or a feeling of animosity, but a matter of preference.  We would probably say it this way: “If you put your family members above and before Jesus, you cannot be His disciple.”  But even this is not something we would choose.  Just think of the times you failed to confess Jesus and His Word to family members or other people because you wanted them to like you, or you wanted to keep the peace.  Just think of the times you failed to speak when you should because you were afraid of hurting your relationship with a loved one.  You chose those family members, those people, over Jesus.  That’s not what a disciple does.  So you see, you can’t do it.  But here’s the good news.  Jesus calls you His disciple anyway.  Because He forgives you.  He forgives all your sins.  He forgives your failure to speak.  He forgives your fear.  He forgives your idolatry including the worship of self and your ears that are attuned to the words of the devil and the world rather than to the Word of God.  He forgives it because He took it all into Himself, took it all the way to the cross, where He died for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins. 
            And now He is risen and lives and reigns and wants you to be His own possession, a citizen of His Kingdom, a member of His family.  Again, you can’t make yourself be those things.  But He can, and He does.  So now He gives you a vocation, a calling, as a Christian, as one Baptized into Christ.  You are to take up your cross and follow Him (v. 27).  Which is to say, you are to die.  What does it cost to follow Jesus?  Everything.  You are to renounce all you have.  You are to renounce all you are.  You are to give yourself up.  You are to die.  And that’s what happened in Christ when you were baptized.  You died with Him, that you might live with Him.  He paid the price for you.  His death counts for you.  You are buried with Him by Baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, you, too, might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).  The cost is impossible for you to pay.  But He paid it.  And the return is worth every penny, or I should say, every drop of blood.  For what do you receive as a disciple of Jesus Christ?  Rebirth.  Eternal life.  Heaven.  The resurrection of your body on the Last Day.  You are made God’s own child, and so the very Kingdom of God is yours.  You are a fellow heir with Christ.  St. Paul simply says: “all things are yours” in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 3:21)… “all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (v. 23).  That’s amazing!  What is not included in the words, “all things”?  Nothing!  All things are yours in Christ.
            So you can die with joy.  You can give yourself up, give away everything joyfully and freely.  You can suffer the reproach of the world, and even of your family and friends, because all things are yours in Christ, to whom you belong.  Does Christ have what it takes?  Absolutely!  He’s God!  Can He do it?  Yes!  He has already done it in His life, death, and resurrection.  What will it cost?  The cost of our salvation was great.  It cost the blood and death of God in human flesh.  But He did it for you and for all people, because He loves you and wants you for His own.  Does Jesus have the resources?  Again, yes!  His perfect fulfillment of the Father’s will on your behalf, His holy, precious, sin-atoning blood, His victorious resurrection and ascension, all of which He gives to you in these precious resources we call the means of grace: Baptism, the holy Word, and the Lord’s Supper. 
            And all the obstacles have been put to shame in the death of Christ.  The world mocked and jeered as our Lord was suspended upon the wood.  But now the tomb is empty, and Jesus lives.  The devil rejoiced as our Lord labored for every breath.  But then the Savior gave up His spirit, and in death conquered death and hell its prince, the devil.  The proof is that He is risen.  And your sinful flesh?  Crucified.  That’s why He took on our flesh.  Your old Adam is dead, crucified with Christ in Baptism, drowned there at the font.  Now, all of these things still appear to be alive.  But don’t let appearances deceive you.  When Jesus comes again, what you cannot now see will be manifest to all.  And you will rejoice.    
            Can you do it?  No, you can’t.  But Jesus can.  And He did.  For you.  You belong to Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 17)
Sept. 1, 2013
Text: Luke 14:1-14

            Jesus has more in mind for us today than simply a lesson in table etiquette.  To be sure, we ought to carry ourselves humbly before others.  But Jesus is not giving us the secret to gaining honor in the esteem of our peers.  He is proclaiming to us our standing before God and what God has done about it in Christ, His Son.  Our standing before God is not only the lowest seat, it is no seat at the Table.  By virtue of our sinful nature and our manifest offenses against God’s Law, we have excluded ourselves from the Kingdom.  Yet in our arrogance and pride, we traipse right up to the seat of greatest honor and belly up to the bar as though we deserve to be there, as though we have every right to be there and everyone should know it.  Well, maybe in our great “humility” we don’t take the highest seat of honor, but we certainly don’t take the lowest.  Because in any group, while we may not have the audacity to claim we’re the best, we’re certainly not the worst.  There are always others with whom we compare ourselves and think that they are lower than us.  And here our sinful pride and self-absorption proves the very point that in and of ourselves we don’t belong at the Table at all.  That’s our standing before God.  We have none.  In our sinfulness, we stand condemned to an eternity forsaken by God.
            But here is what God has done about it.  He sent His Son.  He who from eternity has occupied the highest seat, God the Son, the only-begotten of the Father, the Father’s eternal Word, became a man.  He became nothing.  He took on the form of a servant.  Born of a poor, unwed Virgin, Mary of Nazareth.  Raised by a carpenter, Joseph.  No room for Him in the inn.  Laid in a manger.  A God who sleeps, cries, drinks His mother’s milk, spits it up, and does all the other things babies do.  Look what God has done.  He took the lowest seat, so low that it led Him finally to a criminal’s execution, His suffering, death, and crucifixion.  So low, it led Him to the grave.  For you.  That’s what God has done about our standing before Him.  The Lord Jesus took the lowest seat that He might say to us, “Friend, move up higher” (Luke 14:10; ESV).  “Your sins are forgiven.  I have ransomed you from your condemnation by my death, and given you standing before God in my own righteousness.  And the proof is that the Father has raised me up higher, raised me bodily from the grave, and seated me at His right hand to rule all things for your good.”  As it turns out, the parable Jesus tells this morning is really about Him and what He has done for us.
            It is also about how God deals with us in His Word.  Jesus is in the house of a Pharisee.  The Pharisees believe that, by virtue of their meticulous observance of the Law, they deserve the places of honor at God’s Table.  Not only that, the other guests at the dinner party jockey for the best seats.  It betrays their pride and selfishness.  Then there is this man who has dropsy.  Well, he must have done something very sinful to have that affliction.  There is no place at the table for him.  How does Jesus respond to these people?  By His Word, He humbles the Pharisee and those who choose the places of honor.  By His Word, He heals the man with dropsy.  He exalts the man who occupies the lowest place in the group, effectively saying to him, “Friend, move up higher.”  To the rest He says, “Give your place to this person” (v. 9).  For those who exalt themselves before God and before one another, God will humble by His Word of Law.  Those, however, who have nothing and are nothing, who are poor and despised in this world, who trust in no supposed righteousness within themselves and confess that in and of themselves they are nothing, dead in trespasses and sins, them God exalts by His Word of Gospel to the place of honor, forgiving their sins, healing their diseases, and giving them eternal life.
            There is a Pharisee in every one of us.  We compare ourselves to other people and thank God that we are not like other sinners.  Maybe we’re not the best, but we’re certainly not the worst, not as bad as that guy over there.  Repent.  There is a tendency in every one of us to choose the places of honor at the dinner table.  We want to be first in line, first to get what is to be gotten, looking out for number one, even if it’s at the expense of another.  Just watch children at school when they’re told to line up, or when they have to share limited resources.  Adults aren’t any better.  Just observe our behavior on the highway.  Repent.  You know who you really are?  You’re the man with dropsy.  And you look at the other people with dropsy or whatever affliction (by the way, I’m not really talking about dropsy… I’m talking about the disease of sin), and you think that you’re better than that.  You’re not as bad as that guy.  Well, there’s no room for that with Jesus.  Jesus will put you in your place by His Word of Law.  Your pride shows you for who you are.  If you’ve ever despised anyone, for anything… if you’ve ever looked down upon another human being for any reason, if you’ve ever whispered about someone behind their back, if you’ve ever rolled your eyes when a certain someone entered the room, you are the Pharisee.  You are the sinner.  You don’t belong at the table.  Repent.
            Repentance is taking the lowest place at the table.  Repentance is confessing that you are only in that seat because of God’s mercy, that you don’t belong at the table at all, that you are nothing in and of yourself.  And you know what Jesus says to the repentant sinner, to you, beloved?  Friend, move up higher.”  “Your sins are forgiven.  You are healed.  Go your way in peace and with joy.”  You are actually baptized into this pattern and this way of life.  You are baptized into Jesus’ death.  So in Him, you have taken the lowest seat.  You are baptized into His resurrection.  So in Him, God has exalted you to the highest place, raised you from spiritual death even as He will raise you bodily on the Last Day, and seated you in the flesh of Christ at His right hand in glory.  So, that being the case, you are freed from the old competition with others to be first, greatest, and best.  You already have the place of honor in your standing before God.  You have it in Christ and on account of Christ.  So what else is there to achieve?  No, now you can die to self and sacrifice for others.  You can serve others.  You can have mercy.  You can forgive those who sin against you.  You can give others your place in line.  You can give what you have to someone who does not have it.  You can “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (v. 13) to your table, even though they cannot repay you, because you know that your reward is in heaven, that God will bless you for it even now in this life, and that you will be repaid in abundance at the resurrection of those who have been justified by faith in Christ (v. 14).
            I wonder if St. Paul had this parable in mind when he penned these words we all know and love from Philippians 2: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should 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” (vv. 3-11).  It certainly sounds like a commentary on our Gospel, doesn’t it?  In any case, the humility of Christ is your exaltation.  And now the Table is set.  There is a place for you.  It is a place of honor, dining with the King.  And Christ Himself says to you this morning, “Friend, move up higher.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.