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Not a Political Messiah

Trinity 18

Matthew 22:34-46

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    One of the sad realities of life in America these days is that everything has become political.  There aren’t many areas of life left where you aren’t pressured to take up sides with this cause or that group.  Relationships with co-workers or friends or family are full of land mines if certain topics or current events come up, and you’ve got to be very careful about what you say.  Entertainers seem to be focused less on entertaining and instead are obsessed with political mocking and virtue signaling. The military and the boy scouts have become the battlegrounds where debates about gender and sexuality are fought.  Even in the once fairly politics-free realm of sports, political causes have become the focus, and everyone feels compelled to take up sides.  Everything we do now is seen through the political lens of privilege or race or gender or class.  Everyone is categorized in terms of the tribe they belong to and their identity group.  In an era where objective truth has largely been abandoned, all that’s left is power.  Have you ever noticed how often that term is used, how people feel they need to be “empowered?”  Power is the realm of politics and control and one group defeating another.

    But this is not the way of Jesus, and we’re reminded of that in the Gospel reading from Matthew 22.  Jesus is not one who was after political power.  He was not merely trying to win a victory for some group or some cause, and so He can’t really be categorized politically.  Was He a conservative or a libertarian or a progressive or a moderate?  The answer is, “None of the above.”  And just when one group or another thought that He was their man, Jesus would say something to prove that He wasn’t.null

    So for instance, just before today’s Gospel Jesus said something that the conservative Pharisees didn’t like.  They had asked him about whether or not they should be paying taxes to the foreign occupiers, the Roman government.  And Jesus famously said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus sounded a little bit pro-establishment.

    So then the establishment Sadducees came to Him, perhaps perceiving that they had an opening.  The Sadducees were more like the liberal theologians of our day.  They accepted the books of Moses, but they didn’t believe in the existence of angels or life after death or the resurrection of the body.  And so they presented a hypothetical case about a woman who had had seven different husbands during her lifetime because each of the first six had died prematurely.  They asked Jesus, “In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?”  I’m sure they thought they had Him cornered into their position.  But Jesus answered them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.  For in the resurrection they do not marry, but are like the angels of God in heaven.”  The Sadducees falsely assumed that the resurrection would be a restoration of things merely to how they are now in this fallen world.  But at the close of this age, all things will be brought to their completion and fulfillment in Christ in the new creation.  Believers will dwell in the glorious presence of God, just like the angels do.  We will not be married, for the Church will live forever in the perfect love of her heavenly Groom.  And Jesus gave decisive evidence for His case of resurrected life after death by quoting from the books of Moses.  500 years after the days of Abraham God had told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive with God, their bodies awaiting the day of the resurrection.  So Jesus was no friend of these establishment leaders, either.  He wouldn’t have been a delegate at any of these groups' political conventions.

    Like the people in His day, we too naturally want to label Jesus and fit Him into our categories so that we can handle Him and manage Him.  But Jesus defies our attempts to do that, whether it’s a political categorizing, or whether it’s any other attempt to make His Word fit our agendas and support our ideologies. For as soon as we try to do that, we are making ourselves to be Lord and Master, and Jesus becomes merely the means to achieve our goals.  And that’s not how it works.  Jesus remains the Lord, and His Word is sent to accomplish His purposes, not ours.

    “Teacher,” the Pharisees asked, “which is the great commandment in the law?”  It was a question intended to categorize Jesus and to bring the Scriptures down to the mere level of talking points rather than the Spirit-filled words of God that they are.  It is written that the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword.  The Law cuts; it is always meant to lead us to repentance and to Christ for mercy and deliverance.

    Our Lord’s wisdom would not play the Pharisees’ game or submit to their litmus test.  So instead of choosing a single commandment, He summarized them all.  Love is the fulfillment of the law.  So Jesus answers in two parts.  First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  That’s not something you can reduce down to a few do’s and don’ts.  For that Law commands you to love God with every fiber of your being, all that you are, with nothing held back from Him.  He wants the entire devotion of your heart.  Even more than your family or your country or the flag or any group you belong to, He wants all of your allegiance to be with Him.

    And in case someone thinks that loving God means leaving ordinary life and your fellow man, He goes on, “And the second (great commandment) is like (the first): ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These two go hand in hand.  The love of God and the love of the neighbor are inseparable.  For God seeks to be loved in your neighbor.  The Lord Jesus–who took up our nature and truly shares in our humanity–He is present therefore in all those around us, particularly those in need, to receive our acts of kindness and self-giving.  As the proverb says, “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.”  That’s why Jesus says that the commands are alike: Because God is served both in love for Him and in love for the neighbor.

    And this is where the living voice of the Law nails us.  It exposes our lovelessness.  It lays bare how we sometimes use the Law lawlessly to justify ourselves and promote our own causes.  It brings nothing but judgment and death.  It calls you all to repent and to turn to Christ.

    For Jesus then gets us back on the track that leads to salvation and life.  The Pharisees had asked a manipulative Law question, but now Jesus asks a freeing Gospel question, not one that focuses on us, but one that focuses on who He is.  Jesus gets us away from religious philosophy and political debates between this or that group, and instead He leads us to meditate on the personhood of the Messiah Redeemer.  Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah?  Whose Son is He?”  They said to Him, “The Son of David.”  And that was correct.  God had promised King David in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be one of His descendants.

    Jesus then asks them this question, “How then does David in the Spirit call the Messiah ‘Lord’ in one of the Psalms?”  You see, under ordinary circumstances in Jewish culture it would be the son who refers to the father as lord or master, not the other way around.  And yet here David, the father and the great ancestor of the Christ, refers to his descendant as Lord.  Jesus asks them, “Why is that?”  Just as the Pharisees had tried to trap Jesus into a debate with a Law question, Jesus here tries to “trap” them into thinking about the truth of the Gospel with this question, to get them to see the saving reality of who He is.

    The Jews had been conceiving of the Messiah as being a combination of a great prophet and a powerful political leader, but always in the end only a man.  But Jesus here leads us to see that while He is truly human, He is more than just a man.  David calls Him lord and master because Jesus, his literal descendant, is also truly and fully God.  The Son of David is the everlasting Son of God.

    Here, then, is where the good news is for us.  Jesus, thankfully, does not come in a way that fits into our political or social categories or according to the expectations of whatever groups we align ourselves with.  He isn’t a liberal or a conservative or a moderate.  His ways are infinitely higher and better than all such categories.  He comes not in the way of fallen man but in the way of His perfect humanity.  Jesus is the only man in whom God’s love is perfectly embodied.  Jesus kept the Law perfectly, and He did so for us and in our place.  He loved His heavenly Father with all His heart, with all His soul, and with all His mind, devoting Himself entirely to doing His Father’s will.  And Jesus loved His neighbor as Himself.  He gave Himself completely to those around Him, healing them, helping them, teaching them saving truth.  In the end He gave His life away, laying it down for us on the cross.  There is no greater love than that a man lay down His life for His friends; and you are His friends whom He died for.  Through that perfect act of love and self-giving, Jesus won for you the full forgiveness of your sins.  

    Jesus said that on these two commandments of love hang all the Law and the prophets.  Jesus, who is love in the flesh, hangs on the cross for you to fulfill the Law of love perfectly.  Baptized into Him, the Law’s condemnation is taken away from you, as Romans 8 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  You are free, released, forgiven, right with God in Christ.  His self-sacrifice has rescued you from judgment and has brought you everlasting life.  For Jesus has made your enemies to be His enemies–sin and death and the devil–and by rising from the grave He has made them His footstool.  The grave is conquered; sin is taken away; Satan’s head is crushed.  All of this that you now know by faith you will see with your own eyes at Jesus’ return–when He who is at God’s right hand is revealed in all His glory, and all things that are under His feet will be put under your feet with Him.  

    So remember that our Lord Jesus works not in the way of power politics but in the way of sacrificial self-giving.  He doesn’t tell people what they want to hear in order to gain a larger following than the other side has and more power for Himself.  He tells us the truth of our sin and the truth of His blood-bought forgiveness, so that He might draw us to Himself, that we might be His own special, chosen, and beloved people and live with Him in His kingdom.  He’s not in the business of labeling people based on some worldly identity of race or sex or privilege or economic status.  Rather, He gives us all our true and eternal identity as the baptized, as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.  That's our real group, the Church.  Those are our people, baptized believers, whoever they are.  For it is written in Revelation of those in heaven that they are from every tribe and nation and people and language.  We all are given to stand before the throne of God saying, “Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain whose blood set us free to be people of God!”  

    This Jesus, the Lamb of God, is present here now–not to rally a political following but to be pure love in the flesh for you, giving you His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  Here is living theology, where the love of God and love of the neighbor all come together in Christ, love’s flesh and blood.  You are sanctified and cleansed in Christ Jesus.  You are saints before God as the epistle said–not because of the Law and what you have done, but because of the Gospel and what Jesus has done.  Continue, therefore, to believe in Him and cling to Him, eagerly waiting for His return.  For He will confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; He will do it.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Lord of Death and Life

Trinity 16

Luke 7:11-17

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a funeral as He enters the city of Nain.  I think it’s safe to say that none of us like funerals.  It’s uncomfortable being at the visitation or the service, not always knowing exactly what to do or what to say to those who have lost a friend or a family member.  We want to be caring, but we don’t want to say something stupid or cliche.  We’d much rather not have to deal with those situations at all; for they remind us of things we’d rather not think of and the death that is at work within us.  That’s why people revert so easily to fairy tale heavens filled the deceased’s favorite hobbies and myths of how the person is still with us and watching over us.  That’s why we’re OK with the undertaker’s embalming or cremating.  It helps to keep the realities of death at a distance.

    Of course, when someone has lived a good, long and full life, there can be a sense of completion and fulfillment at a funeral.  People are brought together, and we enjoy sharing good memories of the one who has died and honoring the life of that person–and that’s good.  And yet we dare not get lulled into believing, even in those circumstances, that death is somehow normal or OK or even a good thing, and that the only truly tragic deaths are the ones that are premature–a child or a middle-aged person.  Every death is premature; every death is tragic.  For God did not create nullus to die, but to live with Him, body and soul forever.  Death has only entered the picture because it is the curse of sin which we have brought upon ourselves.  Whether someone dies at 9 or 99, it’s still not how God created things to be; that length of time is still just a fleeting moment, as the Psalmist says, “Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  

    That reality does hit us hardest, though, when someone dies before we expected.  And that’s what Jesus was dealing with in today’s Gospel reading.  He comes upon this funeral, just at the time when they were carrying the body out to be buried.  The Lord of Life and this procession of death come face to face.  The one in the casket was a young man, his mother’s only son.  Perhaps there was an accident; perhaps some illness overcame him.  But she had to hold his dead body in her arms.  And she had just been through this not long before.  For she was a widow, who had to bury her husband as well.  Now she was all alone, no one to care for her, no one to provide for her future.  The name of this city, Nain, means “beauty” or “pleasantness.”  But here all we see is the ugliness of death’s curse at its worst–bringing us sadness and fear, separating us from those we love, crushing our hopes and dreams.  

    However, it is written, “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . He relieves the fatherless and the widow.”  When the Lord sees this widow, He has compassion on her; He is deeply moved with empathy for her plight.  And He says, “Do not weep.”  Don’t cry.  Jesus wasn’t just telling her to be tough, to suppress her emotions.  For Jesus Himself grieved and wept openly at the death of Lazarus.  Rather, St. Paul reminds us that we are ones who do not grieve as those who have no hope.  We do not need to wallow in grief and self-pity and blame, because we have a sure and certain hope in Christ.  And so Jesus speaks with comforting mercy, “Don’t cry, for I have come to conquer everything that saddens you and makes you feel alone and cut off and hurt and helpless.  I am here to wipe away every tear from your eyes.  Behold, I make all things new.”

    Jesus earlier had said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart.”  You do not face death and loneliness alone but with Jesus, the One who is your Help and your Shield, the One who is merciful to all who call upon Him, the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.  He faces death head on in order to renew your bodies and revive your spirits.

    Jesus comes and touches the open coffin, and those carrying the dead man stand still.  Jesus stops the procession of death dead in its tracks.  With this touch of the coffin, Jesus is putting Himself in the place of the widow.  He is sharing in her heartache and the heartache of all those who have lost loved ones, as it is written, “He is . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”  And by touching the casket, Jesus also is putting Himself in the place of the only son.  For in so doing, according to the Old Testament Law, Jesus is making Himself ceremonially unclean with this young man’s death.  He allows that mortality to come upon Him so that the young man might have His own life in exchange, to make the young man clean and whole.  For remember, the only Son of the Father, Jesus, also became a dead man; He, too, would be held in the arms of His grieving mother Mary.  Jesus did that to save this young man, and all of you as well.

    On the cross Jesus touched your casket; He absorbed your death into His own body to save you from it.  Outside the gate of the city at Nain, and later outside the gate of the city at Jerusalem, Jesus allowed death to pass from you to Him so that you would be restored to life, cleansed and made whole.  The beauty of the city of Nain was made ugly by death, but now our Lord has turned the ugliness of the cross into a thing of beauty for us.  For there we see the fullness of His love; there we see our redemption from death and the sure hope of our bodily resurrection to life.

null    “Young man, I say to you, arise!”  Those are the words of the Creator who brings life out of nothing.  The one who was dead sat up and began to speak.  Jesus presented the young man to His mother.  Just as this son was a gift of God in birth, so now Jesus gives this son again to his mother with the gift of new life.  

    It is the same as in baptism.  Jesus presents children to Christian parents–not just once at birth, but a second time at the font, born again to new life by water and the Word.  Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ.  We are crucified with Him in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life.

    Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman’s son, God stretched Himself out over you three times with His name at the baptismal font.  He breathed His Spirit into you, granting you a sure and certain hope which transcends all grief and sorrow.  Yes, we must live now by faith, still under the shadow of our physical death.  But the life of Christ will be surely ours by sight in the age to come.  For Romans 6 says, “If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”

    On the day of our death, our souls will be received into the blessedness of heaven.  And on the Last Day our bodies themselves will be raised from the dead, rejoined with the soul to live in Christ’s glory.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins.  God has made us alive in Christ by the forgiveness of our sins.

    In response to this miracle, holy fear came upon the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us,” and “God has visited His people.”  And it’s true; God has visited His people in Christ, the greatest of all prophets, the very Son of God raised up from the dead to bring life and immortality to all who take refuge in Him.  Even today He visits you in His holy Supper.  He is literally here for you with His true body and blood–to forgive you, to raise you up, and to strengthen the faith you need to rely on Him through all your earthly struggles.  

    That’s why, as the Epistle reading said, we bow our knees before God when we come to the altar.  It’s not some ridiculous form of protest, taking a knee; it’s a sign of reverence and respect and honor for the Lord Jesus who is truly present here to fill us with His life.  Real unity is to be found not in sports or even in the flag but at the altar.  Here we are brought into communion with God and with one another.  

    Since Jesus does all of this for us, we know now that all is well.  Even funerals have joy at their center for those who are in Christ;  for He is alive and has taken away death’s sting.  So do not weep; our Lord has said, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.  Because I live, you will live also.”  Jesus will surely visit you yet again at His return to do for you what He did for this young man, and even more–much more.  And so we go on confessing in the Creed, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

    ✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

First

Trinity 15

Matthew 6:24-34

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    In today’s Gospel we hear these words from Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness...”  Don’t be obsessing and worrying about all the other stuff; seek Him first.  This is similar to the first commandment where the Lord says, “You shall have no other gods.”  Perhaps some of you remember learning it as it is recorded in Exodus 20, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  Or more literally in Hebrew, “You shall have no other gods in My face.  Get them out of here.  I alone am the true God who rescued you from your slavery.  I am Your Lord and Redeemer.  I don’t want to see any other gods or have you bowing down to them.  They are no good for you.  You belong to Me.  I love you.  You are My own precious and beloved people.”

    Too often, though, we hear the “seek first” words of Jesus or the “before Me” part of the first commandment,  and we take it to mean simply that we should put God first.  We can have other things that we love and trust in, other small-g gods, as long as we don’t let them become more important than the true God.  So we wrongly hear the first commandment as saying, “You shall have no other gods before Me; they need to be after Me.  As long as I’m first, we’re OK.”  But that’s not what the commandment means.  

    The falseness and the silliness of that understanding is revealed when we think of our relationship to God in marital terms.  The Lord often referred to Himself as the husband of His people.  Jesus, we know, is the Groom of His beloved Bride, the Church.  So imagine how ridiculous it would be for a husband to say to his wife, “I don’t want any other guys coming before Me.  But as long as I’m first, you can love and be with other guys.”  No spouses who truly love each other would say that.  It’s not just a matter of being first.  It’s a matter of being the only one.  That’s what the first commandment is about, “You shall have no other gods before Me.  I alone am your God; you are My people.”  The Lord is a jealous God, in the best sense of that word.  He wants to protect you from the lies of the false gods who try to entice you.  He wants what is best for you.  He defends you.  He wants you to be His own and to live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.null

    But still we act as if just putting God first is enough.  As long as I go to church each week, then I can devote myself to my other pet idols during the week.  As long as I give my 10% tithe in the offering plate, then I can use my other money to serve and worship the various other gods that I love.  We think that as long as we do things which try to demonstrate that the Lord is #1 for us, then we’ve kept this commandment.  But the Lord doesn’t just want to be first on a long list.  He wants to be the heart and center of the whole list–your family, your work, your recreation, your food and clothing, and yes, your money.  He wants you to receive all those things as good gifts from Him to be used and managed for His glory and the good of others.  The notion that we can serve Him on a part-time basis while serving other things the rest of the time is a lie.  Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.  For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” You cannot serve both the Lord and money.

    It is written, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  Love of money causes us to compromise our principles and beliefs, to do things we shouldn’t do in order to fulfill our desires.  Love of money, for instance, causes us to see children as a burden to our finances rather than a divine blessing.  This is a big problem in our culture, with the average age of the population going up and family sizes going down.  God says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” but we listen to the culture and severely limit the children that God would give so that we can purchase and do all the things we want.  You cannot serve God and mammon.  

    Your security and comfort is either going to be in Him or in your finances and your stuff.  Martin Luther comments in the Large Catechism how we tend to choose the latter: “He who has money and possessions feels secure and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.  On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God.  For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack mammon.  This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave.”  We think that there is security in mammon; we think that it will give us what we want.  But that is a lie.  To serve mammon means eventually to pierce yourselves through with many sorrows.  It is to have a life that may look good but at its heart is full of worry and anxiety.

    Repent, then, of your misplaced trust in undependable mammon and depend on Him who is the sure Rock of our salvation.  Learn from God’s Word to turn away from worldly loves to the source of real Love.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Let your heart trust not in temporary created things but in the eternal Creator.  Turn from your anxieties and doubts to your Father in heaven, who will provide for you.

    Don’t ever forget that the Lord has power to supply whatever we need in ways that we can’t always understand or that we don’t expect.  Just consider the Old Testament reading.  I’m sure the last thing that the widow thought she needed was the prophet Elijah coming to her house in the midst of a famine, another mouth to feed.  And yet she trusted in the Lord’s word that the jar of oil and the bin of flour would not run out.  And they never lacked for bread.  And who would’ve expected that it would be a poor widow, of all people, that the Lord would make use of to provide for Elijah?

    Let us trust, then, that our lives are in the Lord’s hands and that He will care for us according to His good and gracious will, even when it seems like we’re getting to the breaking point.  Let us not engage in worry but in prayer.  Worry produces stress, but prayer produces peace.  For it dwells upon the sure words and promises of God, like those in today’s Gospel.

    Prayer says such things as, “Father in heaven, you know all the things I need, even before I ask for them.  You feed the birds of the air, and not one of them falls to the ground apart from your will.  Help me to trust that I am more valuable in your sight than the birds and that you will feed and sustain me even in the midst of my troubles.  And dear Father, you splendidly clothe the lilies of the field, even though they are little more than the grass.  Give me to believe that you will also clothe me and take care of me.  Keep me from worrying about tomorrow, and give me a thankful heart for the gifts you give day by day, my daily bread, and everything that is necessary to support this body and life.  The world is passing away, but your Word of mercy and life will never pass away.  It will save and sustain me forever.”

    Faith can only pray in this way because of what Jesus has done.  For He is the One who has made you children of the heavenly Father and has given you a place in the family.  Jesus calls you to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness because He Himself is the Righteous One who seeks first your salvation.  God has made you His first priority.  The King seeks after you and pursues you to rescue you.  The Eternal Son of God took on your perishable flesh and blood so that you would be redeemed.  Jesus bore in His own body all the corruption and the decay and the mortality that your sin brings, and He put it all to death on the cross.  In Christ the old undependable, perishable order of things has passed away and all things have become new in the power of His bodily resurrection.  In Him all of the false loves of your old self are forgiven and done away with, and you are given a new love and faith toward Him. This is how the Lord seeks after you and demonstrates His love toward you first, in that while we were still sinners, He died for us.  We love and seek Him first because He first loved and sought us.  And He hasn’t stopped seeking you out.  Christ continues to come to you in the ministry of His Word to bless and keep you.  Surely His goodness and mercy shall pursue you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

    Trusting in Jesus, knowing all that He has done and prepared for us, our worries and fears are calmed.  For if God has provided so bountifully for our eternal needs, certainly He will care for us in all the necessities of this temporal life.  And even when the hard times do come, even if it’s all taken away and God’s care seems to have vanished, we know that we who are His baptized people are not forsaken.  We believe that even when terror and tragedy, sickness and death come, He who created us can and will also recreate us in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  So literally nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  It is as Romans 8 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?”  If you have Jesus, you have it all, for in Him all things hold together.

    That’s how Job could say in His suffering, in the loss of his property and his loved ones, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  “Though he giveth or he taketh, God His children ne’er forsaketh.”

    Living in that confidence, we are freed to use our money and possessions for the good of all, especially those of the household of faith, as the Epistle directs us.  We don’t have to cling tightly to our mammon.  We can give it away, because it’s not our god; it’s a gift of God and an instrument to be put to His use.  Let loose of your mammon.  Give away the security and power you think it gives you.  Turn the idol of mammon on its head; make it bow down to the true God and put it to a godly use, not only here but also out in the world.

    “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” which is to say, “Seek Christ the King, the Righteous One, and all the things you need will be added to you in Him.”  By faith we see that it’s not just a matter of putting the Lord first.  It’s a matter of seeing that Jesus is your first and middle and last.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, your all in all.  He is your entire salvation and life, from beginning to end.  Not only does God promise to feed you your daily bread, but here and now He feeds you with His very body and blood under the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of your sins.  Not only has God promised to clothe you, but He has already robed you in the white garment of Christ’s righteousness in your baptism.  

    And on the Last day you will forever be rid of your mortal clothing, this perishable flesh and blood, and you will put on your new and everlasting clothing in the resurrection of the body, as it is written, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. . .  Then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ . . .  Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  It is because of this certainty that we take to heart the words of St. Paul, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

    ✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Your Jesus Has Made You Well

Luke 17:11-19

Trinity 14

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Jesus said to the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, “Your faith has made you well.”  Now those words are easily misunderstood, particularly in today’s religious context.  Often when people talk about faith, they turn the focus inward.  The emphasis is on something that’s inside of you, something that you’re doing spiritually.  And so a statement like “Your faith has made you well” could sound like there’s some inward characteristic you have that healed you.  Basically, you healed yourself.  And that’s not at all what Jesus is saying here.

    All too often we think of faith as some special power within us.  It’s all about my believing, my praying, my spirituality.  The power is within me.  That’s the way the world thinks of these things.  “Just look within yourself for the answers,” they say.  “You can do anything if you just have faith and believe.”  But that’s wrong.  Faith is not some power you harness to achieve your own personal goals in life.  That’s not the way the Bible talks.  Such thinking is faulty for several reasons, but especially because it puts the focus on the believer rather than on the One who is believed in.  It locates the ability to save in man’s doing rather than in God’s doing.  It gives the credit and the glory to the one who has faith rather than the One to whom faith clings.  

    You must understand that faith is nothing by itself–nothing.  The power of faith comes from that which it trusts in.  Faith is defined not by its own qualities but by the qualities of what or who it relies on.  And in the realm of Christianity, faith relies on Christ alone.  Faith by itself is like an empty glass.  If you’re thirsty, I might give you the most ornate crystal glass in the world, but if there’s nothing in it, it’s not going to quench your thirst one bit.  It’s not the glass but what’s in it that finally counts.  That’s also how it is with faith.  It’s not the faith itself but what the faith holds to, what or who you believe in that really matters.  Your faith is just the cup.  It’s the content of your faith–what it contains and embraces–that’s most important.  The essential thing is not your trust but where your trust is directed.  null

    That’s why the familiar statements, “You gotta have faith,” or “My faith saw me through” are really meaningless by themselves.  They don’t say what you’re believing in!  Faith in what? in yourself? in your doctor? in your bank account? in the government? in the forces of nature? in your horoscope?  You see, when it comes right down to it, everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists.  Everyone puts their trust in something.  It’s just that not everyone has Christian faith.  Some people believe in science and technology–they think that will give them purpose and provide all the answers they’re looking for.  Others believe in a generic sort of God, not the God of the Scriptures but a false god of their own making that fits in with their own philosophy of life.  Still others trust in worldly idols of power or prestige or possessions or their own wisdom and abilities.  But Christian faith is directed toward Christ Jesus, the eternal and only Son of the Father, who together with the Holy Spirit is the one true God.  That is what the Scriptures mean when they speak of faith:  to fear, love, and trust in this God above all things.  So there is true faith and there is false faith.  There is misplaced belief, and there is properly placed belief.

    Now Jesus’ words to the leper should be much clearer.  When Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” He was not saying that the leper had worked up this thing called “faith” within himself that had healed himself or earned God’s blessing.  Rather, Jesus was saying that by God's Word and Spirit this leper was brought to put his faith in the right place, the only place that could truly bring healing and deliverance from the deteriorating power of sin.  It is as if Jesus said, “Your faith is the correct kind.  You believed that I could help you, and rightly so.  For I alone have the power to save–and not only from temporal bodily ailments, but even from eternal death.  By the Father’s grace you have trusted in Me, the fountain of life.  And so you have been made well.”

    True faith isn’t just a generic belief that God exists.  True faith actively and specifically desires Christ, trusting in Him and in all that He has done.  A person can't have faith without desiring Christ in divine service.  Faith seeks after Christ where He is to be found, in His words, His preaching, His supper.  It calls upon the Lord in time of need and looks to Him and thanks Him for all good things.  

    The ten lepers in the beginning of the Gospel are a good example of this.  They stood afar off because they knew of their uncleanness, even as we all should know of the uncleanness of our hearts.  Yet they still were bold to cry for help, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  So also, we should all be bold to do the same, letting our “Lord, have mercy’s” be full of faith.  The lepers firmly trusted in Christ and were confident He would heal them.

    *That is one of the chief lessons of today’s Gospel, that we should commend ourselves into God’s hands and trust Him for everything, for He will surely supply it.  We should look to Him for all our needs and know that He is our only source of help.  Do not doubt but instead say, “I know that for Christ’s sake God will hear me and give me what I ask.  And even if He doesn’t do it in the way or at the time I prefer, He will do it in His own time and in His own way.”

    A wavering heart that doesn’t believe, that isn’t convinced it will receive what it asks for, will certainly receive nothing.  For our Lord God can give such a heart nothing, even though He would dearly love to do so.  It is as if you have a glass in your hands, but refuse to hold it still and keep waving it back and forth.  I can’t pour anything into it.  If I have a bottle of fine wine and you won’t hold your glass still to let me pour some for you, I’m not going to waste it and pour it all over the floor.  That’s the way it is with an unbelieving, wavering heart.

    On the other hand, if you do not waver, but wait and endure–God loves to give to people like that, as we see in the case of the ten lepers.  They wait patiently and never doubt that Christ will help them.  That is why they get exactly what they believe.  Let us take careful note of that, so that we too learn to trust God’s goodness implicitly, never letting our hearts falter, but patiently expecting what we pray for, be it health when we are sick, food when we are poor, righteousness when we are unrighteous and full of sin, or life instead of death, because God truly loves to pour out His blessings on us.

    The Lord will sometimes make you wait, to see if you continue believing and praying.   That’s how it was with these lepers.  Jesus didn’t heal them right away.  Instead, He simply said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  “Go to the temple in Jerusalem so that you can have yourselves legally declared clean by the religious leaders.”  But Jesus sent them off without any apparent change in their condition.  Then the Gospel says, “And as they went, they were cleansed.”  As they held to Jesus’ words and proceeded down the road, then they were healed.  These men had faith in the promise implicit in Jesus’ directions even without any evidence.  They believed that they had been made well by Jesus, even though they couldn't see it yet.  And in the end, it was revealed to have been true.  Jesus’ words accomplished what they said, first in a hidden way, then in a revealed way.

    And that is exactly how it is also for you.  When you cry out to Jesus in your need, He calls back to you with His words of life.  Of your uncleanness He says, “You are forgiven and cleansed in the waters of your baptism.”  Of your physical health He says, “By my wounds you are healed.  I have taken away all your diseases by my suffering.  Death cannot harm you.”  Of your struggles and difficulties He says, “I have delivered you from them all by my Easter triumph.”  Yet, by all appearances, it may not seem to be that way.  You may still find yourself facing many of the same things.  Nevertheless, just as He did with the lepers, Jesus sends you on our way.  He calls you to walk down the narrow road that leads to everlasting life holding only to His words.  To be a Christian is to trust in Jesus’ promises even without any visible evidence, to believe that you have been cleansed and healed and delivered, even if you can’t always see it yet, to walk by faith not by sight.  For in the end His words toward you will be shown to have been true all along.  Jesus’ words always do what they say–first, in a hidden way, “down the road,” in a revealed way.

    We know that Jesus’ words deliver these things to us because of the destination of His journey.  Not only did the lepers go to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests, the Gospel says that Jesus was going there as well, to be our Great High Priest.  The ten went to get a new lease on life; Jesus, however, went there to give up His life.  His very purpose in coming into this fallen world was to make that ultimate sacrifice to release us from sin and suffering, from death and the devil.  So it was that Jesus breathed in our sin-poisoned air; He was afflicted with our afflictions in order that He might save and rescue us, as it is written, “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”  When Jesus comforted someone, He took their sadness on Himself; when He healed someone, He took their sickness on Himself; when Jesus forgave someone, He took their sin on Himself.  And Jesus has done that for you all.  All of the weight of the fallen world was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, and He carried that load to the cross, where it perished with Him.  Your sin and sorrow and sickness have been overcome, left dead and buried in the tomb from which Christ arose in triumph.  

    Believing in Christ, you have everything now.  Through Him you have healing in the midst of sickness, holiness in the midst of weakness, victory in the midst of things which overwhelm you, even life in the midst of death.  By faith you have it all in Christ, a truth that will be revealed to all creation at the close of the age.  That is why St. Paul could confidently say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

    “Your faith has made you well.”  You can be sure you’re understanding the word “faith” correctly when you can insert the name of Jesus in its place.  Since faith is defined by what it trusts in, you should be able to replace it with “Jesus,” and it should still be saying the same thing.  “Your faith has made you well.”  “Your Jesus has made you well.”  Same thing.  That’s Christian faith.  

    Let us then be like the Samaritan, who returned to give praise and thanks to the Lord, worshiping at His feet.  And let us receive the words that Christ spoke to the cleansed leper as being spoken also to us, “Your faith has made you well.  Your Jesus has saved you.”

    ✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

* This paragraph and the following two paragraphs are adapted from a sermon by Martin Luther in The House Postils, Vol. 2, p. 423.

You're Not the Samaritan

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Trinity 13

Luke 10:25-37

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    I imagine that when you heard the reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, many of you thought to yourselves, “I know this one well enough.  Don’t have to listen too carefully; the meaning of this one is easy: you’re supposed to help out strangers and be nice to your neighbor, even if you don’t like him.  It’s basically the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We should all try harder and not make excuses and be more like the Samaritan.”  And that is true as far as it goes.  We should be kind to one another and help those in need.  However, that’s actually not the main point of today’s parable.  Jesus is doing much more than just telling us to give it more effort in doing good works.  Even the unbelieving world can get on board with a message that we should be kinder and nicer, right?  No, today’s Gospel is about much more than that.

    We know that because of the reason why Jesus tells this parable.  He tells it to an expert in the law who was trusting in his own keeping of the law to make himself righteous before God.  The lawyer tests Jesus by asking Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And since the man wants to know what he must do, Jesus asks him what the Law says.  And the man correctly summarizes it: Love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus tells him, “If you want to gain eternal life for yourself by your own doing, hey, go for it.  Do that and you’ll live.”  But, of course, the question left hanging out there is, “Can you do that?”null

    Just think about what the Law demands of you.  It requires that you love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength.  It doesn’t say “some” or “most” but “all,” everything that you are, no exceptions, no failures, God at the heart and center of everything. 

    And then, there’s more.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Law recognizes that we know how to love ourselves; that comes quite naturally.  We are to love our neighbor in the same way that we look out for ourselves.  And we must do that freely, gladly, from the heart, even if our neighbor is someone we don't really like.  James 2 reminds us, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

    This summary of the Law is what Jesus presents the lawyer with.  And you can tell that it made the lawyer uncomfortable and a little defensive, because he then tries to justify himself.  Isn’t that what we do when the Law backs us into a corner?  We come up with excuses and exceptions and defenses and justifications like “I did the best I could, a lot better than most people.”  The lawyer asks a self-justifying question, “Well, who is my neighbor?”  Maybe if that category can be narrowed down a bit, perhaps to just family and friends, he can claim that he kept that commandment. 

    It’s only then that we hear the story of the  Good Samaritan.  So it’s important to understand: Jesus tells this parable not to help the lawyer with his own moral improvement, but rather to cut him down to size and nail him as a sinner, to nuke all of his self-justifying thinking and to get him to see that he’s in bad shape and needs to be rescued and saved.  So don’t get the idea that the Samaritan is you in this story.  You are not the Samaritan, Jesus is.

    Our Lord Jesus is saying to the lawyer and to all of us today, “Repent.  You are the man laying on the side of the road.  You are the one who has been robbed of the glory in which you were created.  Sin and Satan and world have beaten you and left you in the ditch, physically alive, but spiritually dead.  The Law cannot help you.  It can diagnose your condition, but it offers you no medicine.  Like the priest and the Levite, it passes by on the other side.  Only I, Jesus, your Good Samaritan can rescue you.  I have come to you as a foreigner from the outside, the Son of God from heaven. Though I  am despised and rejected by the Jewish leaders, I have come to show you mercy and compassion.

    “As one who shares in your flesh and blood, I am here to take your place.  For I myself will be robbed and stripped of My clothing; I myself will be beaten mercilessly and left dead on a cross, buried in a grave.  But this is the way I will defeat your enemies.  This is the way I will take away their power over you.  I will take the whole curse into my body, your sickness and sin and hurt and death.  And by My divine blood I will break the curse; through My resurrection, I will give you new and immortal life.  You cannot win this fight by your own strength.  But do not fear; I am fighting for you.  When death and the devil grab hold of My weak flesh, they will learn all too soon that they have grabbed hold of the almighty God; and I will tear them limb from limb and utterly destroy them.  I am here with you.  Lean on Me. You are safe; you are forgiven; there is nothing now that can separate you from My love.”

    The Good Samaritan Jesus comes to you and He cleans up the wounds of your sin in the waters of baptism.  He pours on the oil of His Holy Spirit to comfort you and the wine of His blood to cleanse and purify you in Holy Communion.  He gives you lodging in the Inn which is His holy church.  There you are continually cared for through the preaching of His words of life.  For although your sins are fully forgiven, yet the wounds of sin are not fully healed.  We still live with their effects in this world, don’t we.  The Church is the hospital where those wounds are tended to by the Great Physician, lest they become infected.  The innkeeper is the pastor; Jesus provides the innkeeper with two denarii, so that the Lord’s overflowing compassion might continue to be given to you in the ministry of the Gospel.  Jesus promises to pay whatever it takes to restore you.  For in fact He has already paid the full price, fully atoning for your transgressions by His sacrifice on the cross.

    In particular, those two denarii also point us to the resurrection of Jesus.  A denarius would pay for one day’s room and board.  A two denarii stay, then, would mean that the man would be up and about on the third day.  This is what Jesus has done for you.  He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, and He rose on the third day so that you may share in His bodily resurrection and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  It is as we heard in the OT reading: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.”

    The lawyer had asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”  And the answer to that is “everyone.”  But notice how Jesus changed the question.  He changed it from the Law to the Gospel.  He said, “Who was neighbor to the man?”  Who is neighbor to you?  The answer to that question is just one; it’s Jesus.  He is the One who had mercy, who loved you as Himself.  He is the One who kept the Law for you, in your place, so that in Him you may inherit eternal life, as the Epistle said, “The Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

    Repenting and believing in Jesus, He now lives in you and through you to love and be the neighbor to others.  He frees you to “go and do likewise”–not because you have to in order to be saved (if you're doing it to save yourself, it's not really a good work anyway, is it?)  No, you are freed to go and do likewise in showing mercy simply because your neighbor needs you.  Since Christ became weak for us and bore all our infirmities and sorrows, we learn to see Him in those who are weak and suffering.  And we show love for Him by loving them.

    You’re not the Samaritan; but Jesus is.  You don’t have to justify yourself; Jesus has taken care of that for you.  You are in the family of God.  And so the promised inheritance is yours in Jesus, a free gift, won by His death, delivered by water and the Word, sealed by His body and blood.  As you rest and recover here in the Inn, be strengthened in the certainty that soon, very soon your Good Samaritan will return to you as He has promised.  The risen Jesus will come again to take you to be with Himself in the place that He has prepared for you in His everlasting kingdom.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

He Looked Up to Heaven and Sighed

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    Not only when people are physically tired, but especially when they are stressed out and mentally and emotionally tired, they sigh.  We sigh when we’re burdened by something, when we’re weighed down, when we’re struggling to keep on going.  Sometimes the cause of our sighing is within us–be it the physical things we battle like bad knees and bad backs, disease, loss of sight and loss of hearing; or be it the sin within that weighs on you, that attacks your conscience, that makes you say, “Why did I do that or say that?  Why am I such a mess?”  And we can be brought to sighing by things outside of us, too–when people do evil to us and make our life difficult, when family or friends let us down, when all our efforts seem to get us nowhere, when we see the violence of the world and how everything around us seems to fail sooner or later.  Sometimes it’s all just too much, and we sigh; we groan.  Sighing is the fruit of the curse.

    And it affects all of creation.  Romans 8 says that “all creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”   The recent hurricane and flooding is a living picture of that.  The whole creation is weighed down and broken.  It sighs and groans; and that often only makes our sighing and groaning worse as it brings to us suffering and sickness and death.  Creation itself is in bondage to decay after the fall.

    As we look up to heaven and sigh, it is most helpful to see our Lord Jesus in the Gospel doing the very same thing.  He is really one with us in our troubles.  He shares our burdens.  He too, sighs and groans.  But His sighing is also different from ours.  He feels your pain to be sure. And He knows your emptiness. But there’s more to it than that.  He knows that there’s a cure.  For He has come to be the cure Himself.  His sighs, His groans, His suffering are the very thing that take your sin and your burden away from you.  His sighs breathe His words and His Spirit and His life into you.null

    The friends of the deaf man at least in some small way understood this.  They brought the deaf-mute to Jesus.  They didn’t ignore his deafness or ostracize him.  They didn’t say it was his fault, that it was punishment for something he had done.  They were real friends.  So they brought him to where he could get help.  They brought Him to Jesus.  May God grant to us all such friends, even as we have already been befriended by those who brought us to Jesus at baptism, or who encouraged us to come to church (or get back to church) or receive holy absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And by His mercy may the Lord make us such friends to others.  When’s the last time you invited someone to come with you to church or adults instruction class?

    Even more than his friends, though, the deaf-mute had this going for him: He had Jesus going for him–Jesus with him and for him and on his side.  Jesus took him aside from the multitude, away from the familiarity and the security of his friends and the people he knew.  The deaf-mute’s attention, his trust was to be entirely focused on Jesus now.  So it is with you.  When Jesus deals with you, he calls you to find your security not ultimately in the familiar people or things in this world, not even in your family, but only in Him.  He even goes so far as to say, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).  

    Jesus did this away from the crowd.  For He wasn’t using this man as a prop for a PR stunt to promote His Messianic career.  He was completely there for the deaf-mute, one on one.  He put His fingers into the deaf man's ears.  He spit and touched the deaf man’s tongue.  He touched him right where his body was broken with a healing touch.  And He said, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.  Be released.”  There was something almost over the line in Jesus’ actions. We don't want people sticking their fingers in our ears.  And we certainly don't want people spitting and touching our tongues!  Jesus invaded this man’s space.  It was uncomfortably close.

    The Lord can heal with just a Word.  Why then fingers in the ears, spit and hands upon the tongue?  Well, for one thing, this is what his friends had prayed for.  Remember they had begged Jesus to put His hand on him.  That prayer was being answered very concretely.  Be careful what you pray for.  You may receive what you asked, but not in the way you expected.  It may not come in the comfortable, simple way you were hoping for but in the Lord’s way that puts you out of your comfort zone, that teaches you not to trust in your prayers or your friends’ prayers, but only in the Lord who answers your petitions.  He may be invading your personal space, but it’s for your good.

    Jesus heals in this hands-on way, too, because this is the very purpose for which he came, to be the Great Physician who touches our broken flesh with His pure life-giving flesh.  He sticks His fingers in our ears through the preaching of His Word.  In the Bible, the “finger of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and His work.  God puts His finger, His Holy Spirit into our ears with the Scriptural words which He Himself inspired.  Only by the power of God’s Word and Spirit can our natural spiritual deafness be turned to a listening ear which understands and believes the things of God.  The Epistle reading said, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  

    Jesus also spits and touches our tongue in the Sacraments.  Baptism is water and words from the mouth of God, right?  In baptism Jesus says His “Ephphatha” to you, releasing you from your bondage to death and unloosing your tongues to sing the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  We pray in the Psalms, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Only when the Holy Spirit has opened our ears and freed our tongues can we truly worship Him rightly.  It is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

    And of course, our Lord Christ touches your tongue very literally in Holy Communion, where He places His body and blood right onto your tongues and into your bodies for your forgiveness.   To the world it is a rather strange thing that you would come forward and kneel at this rail and let me place food and drink into your mouth.  But you do so at the Lord’s Word.  For this is the Lord’s concrete, earthy way of touching you and giving you eternal healing.  And it especially seems strange to the world that you would all drink from the same cup of the Lord.  It seems so untidy in our day and age.  But that’s what the Lord directs us to do.  He says, “Drink of it (the one cup) all of you.”

    Jesus looked up to heaven, and sighed, and said “Ephphatha.”  The cost of our healing is His sacrificial death, and Jesus knows that well.  He sighed and groaned and cried out and was spitefully spit upon for us on the cross.   And yet through that death Jesus is not defeated but victorious.  For in so doing He breaks the power of sin’s curse.  Jesus has overcome all that makes you sigh and groan in this fallen world through the cross.  You have the victory in Him.

    God the Father showed the victory of Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the third day.  This time the Father said “Ephphatha” to the tomb, “be opened,” and He raised Jesus to life in glory.  In the same way, Jesus will speak His “Ephatha” to your graves on the Last Day, and raise you from the dead with glorified bodies to live with him forever in righteousness and holiness.

    This is the light at the end of all tunnels for the Christian. This is the promise that no matter how bad the sighing gets, there really is a better day ahead.  No matter how deaf God appears to the sounds of our cry, in Jesus Christ, he hears, and he will answer us, and restore us, and give us eternal blessing.  In the resurrection there will be no more deafness or pain or trouble or disease any more.  As it is written, “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  The whole creation will rejoice with us as it, too, is released from its bondage.  We eagerly wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  Until then, the Spirit of Christ helps us in our weakness, aiding our prayers when we don’t know what to say, making intercession for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.

    “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book.”  Thanks be to God that He has caused the living melody of the Gospel to sound in our ears, that He sighs His breath and Spirit and life into us.  Even in the midst of the uncertainties of your life, let your confession of faith be like that of the multitude in the Gospel,  “He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

No Comparison

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    All of us know how to play the comparison game.  You see or hear about someone or their family, something they’ve done or achieved, and then you line yourself up next to them to see who’s doing better.  In your heart you usually come up with one of two conclusions: either you’re proud and satisfied with yourself or you despair and are depressed about yourself.  The comparison game is not a good game to play, but our sinful nature can’t seem to avoid it.  For the old Adam is always obsessed with the self, and he wrongly judges himself in terms of others rather than in terms of God and His Word.

    Pride can rear its head in the comparison game even in something as simple as watching the news.  We like to complain about how they so often focus on the negative aspects of the human condition; but then we still keep on tuning in, don't we--perhaps in part because next to all that we seem pretty good.  We can virtue signal on social media about how we stand for this or stand against that.  We see the racist neo-nazi driving into a crowd of people or the lawless vandal tearing down statues and starting streetfights, or the addicted celebrity, or the corrupt politician, or the tragically broken transgender person, and we think, “Thank God I’m not like those people.  I’m certainly doing better than they are.”  

    But notice how that’s the way the Pharisee talks.  He mentions God; He even seems to thank God for His good works, but not really.  For notice how it says that the Pharisee prayed with himself.  That’s the only safe way to pray if you’re playing the comparison game–with yourself and by yourself.  The name of God is used by the Pharisee just once; the word I is used four times.  God is not really the focus here; He’s just window dressing for the main attraction, the pious Pharisee.

 null   Now, the Pharisee here seems to be a little bit of a caricature that we can easily make fun of.  But be careful, for as soon as you start thinking, “Thank God I’m not a self-righteous snob like the Pharisee,” then you’ve become the Pharisee yourself.  Then you’re the one looking down on others.  You don’t like it when people act all holier than thou, but the fact that you’ve got to go and point that out shows that you think you’re better than them.  And so you’re caught.

    Repent.  Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall..  He who exalts Himself will be humbled.  Turn away from religion which is all about you and your spiritual self-improvement.  The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves.”  That statement is a lie; It’s not in the Bible.  Do not trust in yourself to become good before God; it cannot be done.

    But at the same time, do not give way to despair, either.  For that is the other side of the coin in the comparison game.  People who know they haven’t measured up, who have botched things, compare themselves to others and say, “Look at how I’ve messed up and sinned.  My life is full of mistakes and failings.  I always seem to fall short.  I don’t see any future for me, especially with God.  How could He accept someone like me?  It’s hopeless.”  

    Those who succumb to spiritual despair are really engaging in the very same sin as the Pharisee, oddly enough.  Both pride and despair are obsessed with the self.  The proud person looks at himself and thinks he sees good.  The despairing person looks at himself and sees bad.  But both are engaging in the exact same spiritual activity–navel-gazing, mirror watching.  It’s all about me.  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves.  Both the proud and the despairing person think that it all depends on them and their efforts and what they do.  For one this is happy, for the other it’s sad.  But they both believe the same thing, and they’re both wrong.  That’s why they both end up despising others, as Jesus said.  The proud person looks down on those he thinks to be inferior to him.  And the despairing person may well despise those he thinks “won life’s lottery” or who supposedly held him down and kept him from being able to become the person he was supposed to be.

    Let go of all the comparing and embrace grace.  “By grace you have been saved.”  God’s grace and mercy alone.  There is no comparison to that.  Nothing can compare to what is freely given to you in Jesus Christ.  The tax collector’s worship is the right kind of worship, that of humble reverence before the Lord.  It’s right because his faith is not in himself in any way but in the Lord’s sacrificial compassion.  It all depends on that.  He doesn’t presume that he has the right to draw near to God on his own merits.  He stands afar off with his face not even lifted up to the King of kings.  He beats his chest in sorrow as if to say, “What have I done?”  And his only plea is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

    That may not be the kind of worship that draws crowds and makes you feel all tingly, but it is the kind of worship that Jesus seeks and that He praises here.  For Jesus says that it’s the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, right with God.  The tax collector comes before God with no illusions that he has some great virtue that he can offer to God.  No it all hangs on the belief that the Lord is a God of mercy who will not forsake even him, who will forgive him and raise him up, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

    That’s why he came to the temple.  This wasn’t the synagogue.  This was the temple, where the sacrifices were made that God appointed and where blood was shed to atone for sin.  When the tax collector prays “God be merciful to me . . .” the word he uses for mercy has to do with those sacrifices, all of which pointed forward to the coming sacrifice on Good Friday.  So as the tax collector offers this prayer, God is already answering it for him there in the animals being offered on the altar to which the Lord attached His promise of mercy.  The tax collector trusted in that promise, and he longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all of these things to their fulfillment.

    Let us also then learn the lesson of the tax collector and take our place with him.  Let us come before the Lord with humble reverence, with sincere repentance and true faith.  For it is written, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).  If you know the burden of your fallen nature, if you’ve made some poor choices in life, if this world at times wearies you to death, then the Lord Jesus is for you.  Pray “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And He is, and He will be, and His mercy endures forever.  For He has made the sacrifice for you in the temple of Christ’s body on the altar of the cross.  There the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all.  Through His sacrifice your sin has been fully atoned for.  You are released and forgiven.  You are freed from all the religious score-keeping and comparison games that divide you from your neighbor.  Though Cain and Abel were divided from each other by Cain’s envy and anger, so that the blood of Abel the shepherd covered the ground, yet even this portrays how the holy blood of Jesus the Good Shepherd covers you and atones for you who are made of dust.  “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.”  Notice how it is written that the ground opened it's mouth to receive Abel's blood (Gen. 4:11).  So it is that we open our mouths to receive the blood of Christ that cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7).  By it you are reconciled to God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”   

    Now you are given to lift up your eyes and see heaven opened through Jesus.  It is opened because Jesus fulfilled His own words here, “He who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Jesus humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross.  He didn’t say to His Father, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men”–even though He’s the One who actually could have said that.  Instead, He made Himself to be like us and bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we, having died with Him to sin, might live for His true righteousness.  And now God the Father has exalted the risen Jesus to the highest place and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, even at this altar rail, as He comes to you by grace.

    All of you are freely given to go down to your houses justified and righteous today–not because of what you have done for God, but because of what He has done for you.  “It is by grace you have been saved through faith” in Christ, who is your righteousness.  And this is “not of yourselves,” from within you, “it is the gift of God” from outside of you, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  If there’s going to be any boasting, Scripture says, let it be boasting in the Lord.  He baptized you and by His Spirit turned you from a child of wrath to a child of grace.  He comforts you now with His words of mercy and feeds you His own true body and blood, like a holy medicine, to cure you and to prepare your bodies for the resurrection to life everlasting on the Last Day.

    You are justified, right with God in Christ.  Therefore, humble yourselves before the Lord, that He may lift you up in due time.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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