RSS Feed

On Earth Peace

Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols
Luke 2:1-20

Peace on Earth?
    Every year at Christmas we hear the phrase “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  But that peace never seems to be real, at least not among the peoples of this earth.  Peaceful feelings may exist for a time, an absence of major conflicts may last for a while, but sooner or later, the peace is gone, and the fighting and the violence comes back.  International relations are unstable, the threat of terrorism still looms, and particularly now we see that racial tensions are rising.  We can point to political and social causes for these things, ideological errors and falsehoods.  But we must acknowledge that the root cause is man’s fall into sin.  In the fall peace and fellowship with God was broken, and as a result peace between human beings was also broken.  Sin brings division to all our relationships–between spouses and family members, between co-workers and neighbors, between ethnic groups.  Curved in on ourselves, we blame and bicker and snipe.  Our God is a God of order and beauty, and so the devil loves to work in concert with our fallen natures to stir up disorder and ugliness and animosity among people.  He wants to tear down God’s good creation, instigate rebellion against the authorities God has instituted, and reek havoc on those once made in the image of the God who is love. null

    So what exactly is being referred to here in the Christmas story?  Where is this peace on earth, good will toward men to be found?  It is to be found in the Christ-child and only in Him.  For He alone is the one who restores us to fellowship with God the Father.  And therefore, He alone is the One who restores us to true fellowship with one another.  Jesus Himself is Peace on earth, God’s good will toward fallen sinners, the perfect embodiment of His love and His desire to save us.

What race is Jesus?
    It’s interesting to see how the Nativity and other Scriptural scenes are portrayed in artwork in various countries around the world.  Very often Jesus is depicted as being of the same ethnicity as that country–in a Chinese painting Jesus looks oriental, in an African portrayal Jesus is black, or for that matter, in a German or Scandinavian portrait Jesus looks like a blue-eyed European.  That used to bother me a little, because the Christmas narrative is a true story, real history, and Jesus is a middle-eastern Jew.  To depict the Nativity in some other way seemed to me to be making it into a bit of a fairy tale that we can mold and shape and change to fit our desires and needs.  But the account of Jesus’ birth is no myth.  What I read to you is for real.  Luke emphasizes that point by even giving you some of the historical details about who the Caesar was at that time and the census and the tax and the governor of that particular region.  The Christmas story is an actual, literal account about the real Jesus and His birth.

    And yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that those paintings may have it right, in this sense: The angel came with the message of good news for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  The Savior Jesus is born to you, for you; He is yours.  He’s your kind, humankind.  When the Son of God took on our human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, He did not just became a man.  He became man.  He took all of humanity into Himself in His incarnation.  For He came to bear the sins of all humanity in His body.  That includes every nation and tribe and people and language.  Though Jesus was indeed a Jew, His birth reveals the truth that there is in fact only one human race–only one race!–the fallen children of Adam.  And in this newbnullorn baby in the manger, every sinner is redeemed and restored to God.  Jesus is the embodiment of all people from every corner of the globe, and in His body all people are put right with God again.  And so when Jesus is portrayed as African or Oriental or European, theologically speaking that’s true.  By becoming man, Christ becomes one with all people to deliver all people.  The Savior is born to you, for you.  He’s one of you, your very flesh and blood, your true human brother.  There’s no one that’s left out of the new life that comes from His holy birth.  He’s like you in every way, except without sin, that you might become like Him in every way and share in His divine glory.

    That alone is the basis for the peace of which the angels sang.  Only in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is there "peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."  We sinners are no longer under God’s wrath; we are at peace with Him again through His self-giving mercy.  The warfare between heaven and earth is now ended.  The case of God against the human race is set aside, and His love for the world is revealed.  Our flesh has been joined to God.  Heaven and earth are at peace.  God and man are brought back together in Jesus, for Jesus is God and man together in one person.  Baptized into Christ, we are put right with God.  

    And living in Christ, we are put right with each other, too, restored to each other by forgiveness and love.  In Jesus the human race is reborn.  All believers in His name are made to be brothers and sisters, whoever we are, wherever we come from. Christ came for you all to rescue you, to forgive you.  Our Lord took on flesh and blood so that He might sacrifice His flesh and shed His blood to cleanse you and make you holy, His own special people.  He was willing to deal with the indignities of His lowly birth, His humble life, His suffering and death, in order that you might be dignified and exalted and lifted up with Him in His resurrection to everlasting life.  The only peace on earth that lasts forever is the peace of Christ, forgiven sinners united as one in His holy body.

Seeing as Children
    At Christmas time, our attention often turns to the children, as we enjoy the wonders of the holy day by experiencing and seeing things anew through their eyes.  This is good for us to do at all times, as Jesus said that unless we turn and become like little children–dependent on God, trusting His Word, thankful for His gifts–we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  What better way to turn and become like little children than to turn to the Christ-child Himself and to see yourself in Him.  For you are in Him.

    With that in mind let me draw this all together and to a close by reading a simple poem which speaks of the Christ who was born for us all, as one of us:

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of golden hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus' face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!    
    (written by A. Burt, W. Hutson)

    To all of you, whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve done, know this:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  In Him you are forgiven; in Him you are put right with God and with one another.  All is well.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  Merry Christmas!

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

God's Right and Left Hands

Matthew 22:15-22; Philippians 3:17-21

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

    I think all of us are looking forward to Wednesday, when all the political commercials and ads will thankfully and mercifully stop.  Today I won’t be adding to the promoting or tearing down of candidates.  But our appointed readings are timely as they encourage us to consider and rightly understand the place of politics and religion.

    God rules in this world in two distinct ways, through government and through the Church.  Today’s readings teach that although these two kingdoms are very different from one another, both of them are from God.  He is the ultimate authority behind each.  Lutherans usually refer to these two kingdoms as God’s left hand and right hand kingdoms.  With His left hand, God appoints civil authorities to maintain order, to defend its citizens, to punish wrongdoers and to praise those who do what is good and right.  In this kingdom of the left hand, the Law holds sway.  Coercion and the threat of penalties and prison are used to keep the peace.  But in God’s right hand kingdom, the Gospel holds sway.  The church operates not by threat but by gentle invitation, not by penalties but by the forgiveness of sins.  Peace comes through Christ’s death on the cross which reconciles us to God the Father.  It is not a temporary peace between people but an everlasting peace with God.  The Church is not ruled by the sword but governed by the preaching of God’s Word alone.null

    Jesus directs us to give proper honor to both kingdoms when He says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  First of all, give the governing authorities the honor and obedience that is due to them.  For Romans 13 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.”  They may sometimes not properly exercise their authority; they may not even realize that they have a divine calling.  But Christians are to honor those in office as servants of God nonetheless.  For by honoring that office, we are really honoring God Himself.  We may or may not like a particular governing official.  In Jesus’ day Tiberias Caesar was not a particularly honorable fellow.  But if God has allowed a person to be established in office, then we are to honor him for God’s sake, obeying whatever laws are in force, as long as they do not cause us to sin against God.  If that happens, then it is written, “We must obey God rather than men.”

    In our country, of course, we have an unusual situation in that we get to choose our Caesars.  We get the government and the taxes we elect.  So to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” for us means to do the best job we can as citizens to be informed and to choose wise and competent leaders and to vote for laws that are good and right.

    It’s tremendously important for us to make a proper distinction between Caesar and God.  We sometimes tend to confuse the two. We either turn God into Caesar, as if God were merely the top law enforcer, a morality cop.  Or we turn Caesar into God, as if getting the right people elected would solve all our problems and bring the kingdom of God on earth.  We either reject the gift of government, or we expect too much from it.

    Jesus speaks in terms of both God and Caesar, and He speaks of the two properly distinguished–not separated, as some people think, but properly distinguished. You don’t cease to be a Christian when you walk into a voting booth or take public office, as if your faith doesn’t matter there–if you don’t act on your beliefs, someone else’s false beliefs will take their place, right?  Likewise, you don’t cease to be a citizen of this country when you walk into a church.  It’s just that you have another higher citizenship in Christ.

    With His left hand of power, God gives us temporal blessings, 1st article gifts, daily bread. He ensures that we have roads and sewers and policemen and firemen, and everything that protects our body and life.  With His right hand of grace where Jesus is seated, the Father gives eternal blessings, 3rd article gifts, forgiveness, life, salvation.  God’s left hand punishes and restrains, it keeps a lid on our sin and keeps us more or less in line.  The policeman that pulls you over for speeding, the judge who sentences the criminal is an extension of God’s left hand.  With his right hand, God comforts and consoles us in Christ.  Preachers and teachers of the Word are an extension of God’s right hand, giving forgiveness, eternal life, and peace with God.  God’s left hand works to make people outwardly good.  God’s right hand works to make people inwardly holy.

    God is both left-handed and right-handed.  The left and right hands of God work in different and opposite ways–and we don’t always see how they are connected.  For instance, it was during the time of the pagan Roman empire, when there was relative peace throughout the world and a common language spoken, that Jesus was born.  This allowed the Gospel to be carried far and wide after Jesus’ ascension.  We can see that now, but back then, I’m sure the Israelites wondered why God allowed them to be oppressed by the Romans.  So also today, all we can do is believe that God is working with both hands toward the redemption of His people.  With His left hand God causes kings and kingdoms to rise and to fall.  He has caused our nation to rise for a few centuries in history, and when He is through with us, He will bring this nation down, as He has all the great nations of the past, like the Romans.  God doesn’t explain why or what He is up to.  We are simply given to trust that the God who sent His Son to die for the world knows best how to manage the kings and kingdoms of this world.  It’s all in God’s left and right hands, and He orders everything “for us and for our salvation,” working all things toward the day when Jesus appears and every president and governor and congressman must bow down before the King of kings and Lord of lords.

    And that brings us to the second and really more important half of Jesus’ statement.  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”  Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  Paying taxes is really nothing, then.  God wants all of you–all you are and all you have.  He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty.  And then you get back to your real life out there.  He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do.  He Himself is your life, isn’t He–the Source, the Creator, the Redeemer?  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him.  That starts with the 10% that goes in the offering plate here–that act of worship is very important–but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.

    Remember, it’s all about the image.  The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar.  And what bears God’s image?  You do.  You are in the image of God.  And so you are given to God.

    But also remember this.  You do not give yourself to God.  You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of God.  The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ.  It is written in Colossians, “(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.”  As an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh.  And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice.  Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not in the currency of this world, but in the currency of God, His own blood.  And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus’ head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself.  It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  Not by offering up your own merits, but through Christ alone you are put right with God.  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him.  It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation; He is my offering that settles my account with God.”

    And there is still more.  For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name.  On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself.  You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure.  What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us?  We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord.  And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices in love toward our neighbor.

    You are now citizens of heaven.  You are pilgrims in this world, foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So you don’t have to live as if you’re so attached to the things of this life, or even the outcome of elections.  You are citizens of this land only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity.  Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country.  St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”  Our natural birth leads to death.  But our supernatural rebirth into Christ leads to the resurrection of our bodies to share in Jesus’ Easter glory.  By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection.  Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world.  Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    Until that final Day comes, always remember that Jesus is reigning at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all.  The future of the nations, the future of the church, your future rests in both of His nail-scarred hands.  And there is surely no safer place to be.  

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

Are You Not of More Value Than They?

Matthew 6:24-34
Trinity 15

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

    In today’s Gospel Jesus says that you are worth more than the birds of the air.  He says, “Are you not of more value than they?”  And the answer of course is “Yes!”  But why is that?  Why are you of more value than the sparrow or the raven or the eagle?  The fact is that many in today’s environmental movement would say that you’re not.  A growing number in our culture would say that human beings have no more value than any other animal, or even plants and trees.  It’s more important to protect unhatched eagle eggs than it is to protect unborn children.  An animal has just as much or even more of a right to make its home in a particular habitat as we do to make our home there.  And of course, it’s true that we do have the responsibility to be good caretakers and stewards of God’s creation.  But the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) message that is communicated is that you’re actually not more valuable than the birds, especially since there are so many of you humans.  You’re no more valuable than a snail or a dolphin or an ancient tree.  You’re just an incredibly minor blip on the evolutionary timeline.

    Where is that we are to find our value and our worth?  The generation raised on the self-esteem movement is beginning to realize that constantly telling people they’re wonderful and awesome and giving them trophies for no apparent reason is just a bit shallow and a formula for disappointment.  What is it that makes you worth something?  We try to find it by looking to our own qualities–our intelligence or our good looks and fitness or our creativity and talents.  Or we define our worth by our value to others–I’m needed at my job, or I have an important role in my family, or my friends and neighbors depend on me.  And that’s all fine and good.  But what happens if you begin to lose your mental sharpness or your money or your looks or your health?  What happens if you’re no longer needed at your job, and your family and friends don’t depend on you as much as they once did?  Have you suddenly lost your worth?  Certainly not!null

    The one who defines your true worth is not you or others, but God Himself.  Your value comes from the Holy Trinity and is grounded in Him.  The fact that He loves you makes you lovely.  The fact that He treasures you makes you a treasure.  Jesus says to everyone here, from the unborn to the aged, “You are of more value and worth than you fully can know.”

    For you are children of the heavenly Father, as we just sang.  And don’t discount that phrase or make it into some generic platitude.  The God of all creation, the Almighty Maker of the universe, you get to address as Father, Dad.  You are His children.  You get to come into the house without knocking.  You have the code to the garage door.  You have a spot at the table.  

    Here are three reasons why you get to call yourselves children of God.  First, He created you.  And when He made you, He did so in His own image.  That’s one of the key things that distinguishes you from the animals.  No animal was created in God’s image; but you were.  You’re not just a highly developed animal; you’re a reflection of God Himself.  

    Now it is true that this image has been broken in you because of your sin; and that’s no small thing.  Like a shattered mirror, the image we reflect is disjointed and distorted and all out of place.  We’re all bent and turned in ourselves, like something from a fun house mirror in a horror movie.  But that brings us, then, to the second reason why we are children of the heavenly Father: Jesus has restored the image of God to our humanity.  This, too, is what distinguishes us from every other creature.  The Son of God did not become any of the animals, or even an angel.  The only Son of the Father, through whom all things were created, entered into His creation and took our humanity into Himself, becoming a true flesh and blood man.  And in that way humanity was restored.  Colossians 1 says that Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  Jesus wasn’t just born in the image of God; He is the image of God.  And so that image has been imprinted on our humanity again in Him.  
   If that doesn’t give you a sense of value and worth, I don’t know what will.  The Son of God has made Himself to be your flesh and blood, your blood brother.  He died in the flesh for you as your substitute to break sin’s curse; He shed His blood on the cross to cleanse you and reconcile you to the Father.  He rose again with His truly human body to restore your humanity to the fullness of life with God forever.  No other creature in the universe can say that!  Only human beings, only you can say that God shares in your nature in the person of Jesus.  

    And it gets even better.  Here’s the third thing, the clincher: this crucified and risen Jesus,  who is the image of God–you have been baptized into Him.  You are literally in the image of God, in Jesus, God’s Son, and so you truly are children of God through Him.  There’s only one child of God by nature, one Son of God.  But through your baptismal union with Him, you are all brothers and sisters of Christ, and therefore you are children of the heavenly Father.  Here’s something that gives you the greatest value: God Himself chose you personally and adopted you at the font.  He put His name on you by water and the Word.  Think of it in terms of an auction.  If no one’s bidding, the item is worth little or nothing.  But when the billionaire steps in and shows interest, the item’s value skyrockets.  God has stepped in and shown more than just an interest in you.  He has bought you and claimed you as His own and brought you into the household through Christ.  The family name is yours.  You are royalty in the house of the King of kings.

    So, the question Jesus asks in today’s Gospel, then, is pointed: “Why do you worry. . .?”  The only way that you can worry is if you forget who you are in Christ and start living as if mammon is your lord rather than God, as if the things of creation determine your worth rather than your Creator and Redeemer.  Your heavenly Father knows what you need.  Romans 8 says, “If God did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”  

    To live in the way of worry is to live like the pagans, who believe it all depends on their planning and efforts and how well they’ve pleased God and earned His blessing.  Their focus is on this world, so full of change and decay, rather than on Jesus Christ, trusting in Him who is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Jesus Himself exhorts us, “Do not worry about tomorrow.  Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

    We seek first the things of God, because He sought us first.  He seeks first your salvation.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the old perishable order of things has passed away and all things have become new.  You who are in Christ are righteous in God’s sight, a new creation.

    In this new creation our Lord clothes and feeds you marvelously and abundantly.  Listen again to what Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.”  Don’t be anxious about such things, because Christ faithfully gives you to eat of His body and drink of His blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  Your life is forever safeguarded by His own life which He puts into you under the bread and wine.  How can you worry about daily bread when you are given to partake of the Living Bread which came down from heaven?  Any anxiety you may have about your life must fade into the background as you hear Christ's words, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

    Likewise, listen again to these words of the Lord, “(Do not worry) about your body, what you will put on.”  You need not be anxious about clothing, either, for it is written, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  You were robed in Christ’s righteousness at the font, the garments of the Savior that will never wear out or fade in glory as worldly fashions do.  How can you fret about clothes when you’ve been given such divine, royal apparel?

    In fact, we eagerly await the day when we can be rid of our mortal clothing–this perishable flesh and blood–and put on our 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.”

    This is where your value and worth come from, from the work of the Blessed Holy Trinity for you.  The Father Himself made you and formed you in your mother’s womb; you’re His handiwork.  The Son redeemed you by sharing fully in your humanity, sacrificing His flesh and blood on your behalf.  And the Holy Spirit has sanctified you, clothing you with Christ, bringing you to faith and into the family of God.  You are of the greatest value and worth to Him.  And so the life He has given you in this world also has purpose and value as you live in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another in your daily callings.

    Therefore, brothers and sisters of Christ, do not worry.  Let your fears be turned to faith.  Let your anxiety be turned to confidence in the Father’s loving care.  Cast all your care on Him, for He cares for you.  Your heavenly Father even looks after the sparrow.  And Jesus says in Matthew 10, “Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows.”

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

Who Is Neighbor to You?

Luke 10:25-37

Trinity 13

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

    Everyone knows at least something of the story of the Good Samaritan.  Even those outside the church have at least an idea of what the term means.  A Good Samaritan is someone who goes out of his way to help someone in need, usually a stranger.  He gives of himself and his time or his resources without expecting any sort of reward or recognition.  null

    And so we assume that Jesus’ main point in telling this parable is a moral one:  that we should be more like the Good Samaritan.  We should help our neighbor in need, even if that person is a complete stranger, in fact even if that person is our enemy, as Samaritans were to Jews.  And, of course, that is true; we should do that.  We must constantly be reminded and encouraged and exhorted to remember the needs of our fellow human beings, not to overlook them, but to love them in the same way that we love ourselves.  

    How easy it is for us to come up with justifications not to do that.  “I would help; but I just don’t have time or the money right now.  I’ve got other important business to tend to.”  Or, “I would, but what if it puts me in danger?”  Both of those excuses were very genuine ones for the priest and the Levite.  They both had important business to tend to in Jerusalem, holy business in the temple.  And who’s to say that if they did stop to help the man, the same people who beat up this guy wouldn’t beat them up and rob them, too?  In one way or another, we’ve felt their fears and insecurities; we’ve used their justifications.  “Someone else will help; the government surely has some program to deal with this.”

    So the moral aspect of the story of the Good Samaritan is clear.  Jesus said that as the Samaritan showed mercy, so also we should go and do likewise.  No making excuses or saying to yourself, “Well, even if I don’t, God forgives me anyway.”  Don’t use God’s mercy and love to justify your failure to love.  That’s just another way of passing by on the other side.  Jesus did not come to justify and condone sin but to justify and save sinners.  

    And that’s where we begin to get to the heart of this parable and the main point Jesus is trying to make.  Don’t forget the reason why Jesus told this story.  He told it to a man, an expert in the law, who thought that he could justify himself, that he could inherit eternal life by what he did.  And so Jesus told this parable to crush this man’s false belief, to try to wring out of him the notion that there was any hope at all of him being saved by his own supposed goodness.  This expert in the law was not much of an expert.  The Law demands far more than he recognized.  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.  James 2 reminds us, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” 

    And there’s still 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, freely, gladly, from the heart–and to do that even if our neighbor is our adversary who has wronged us and hurt us.  And you simply can’t do that–not from within yourself.

    So Jesus is not simply making a moral point in this parable about loving your neighbor.  Rather, he is calling us to let go of any faith that we have put in ourselves and in our own keeping of the Law to become right before God.  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.”  It is faith in Christ alone that makes us right with the Father.

    Jesus is saying to us all today, “In truth you are the one in the ditch.  You have been robbed of the glory in which you were created.  Satan and the world have beaten you down and left you laid out on the side of the road, physically alive, but spiritually dead.  The Law cannot help you.  It can diagnose your condition, but it offers no medicine.  It passes by on the other side.  Only I, 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 rejected and despised 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 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.”

    You don’t have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and by your own willpower stand and come to Jesus.  All that would do is inflame your injuries.  No the Good Samaritan Jesus comes to you right where you lay.  Be still.  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 places you on His own beast of burden, for He comes to bear all of your sins and carry all of your sorrows.  He gives you lodging in the Inn, His holy church, where 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 live still with their effects in this world.  The Church is the hospital where those wounds are tended to by the Great Physician, lest they become infected.  Jesus provides the innkeeper with two denarii, that you might receive double mercy, overflowing compassion in His ongoing ministry of the Gospel.  He promises to return, paying fully for the completion of your healing, the redemption of your body on the Last Day. 

    So then, who is your neighbor?  Actually, 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 Jesus.  It’s what He does that counts.  He is the One who has loved you as Himself.  He kept the Law for you, in your place.  Through Him you are fully redeemed and righteous.  

    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, but 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.  “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neighbor” come together in Jesus.

    You don’t have to be defensive, then, or try to justify yourself; Jesus has taken care of that for you.  He is your Defender; in Him you are justified and righteous members of 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, your compassionate Lord, and you will be with Him in the perfect rest and contentment of the new creation in the life of the world to come.  

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

He Has Done All Things Well

Mark 7:31-37

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

    It is a terrible thing not being able to hear.  Perhaps you’ve been in a restaurant eating with a large group of people.  A spirited conversation is going on at the other end of the table, and you want to know what’s going on, but you can’t hear; you’re cut off.  Or perhaps your hearing is failing from age or other problems.  Even normal conversations are strained.  You’re tired of asking people to repeat themselves or guessing at what they just said.  You can imagine, then, the isolation that someone might feel who is completely deaf, especially if he was living in Jesus’ day–no closed captioning or anything like that.  This man in the Gospel was feeling the damaging effects of the fall in his body in a very real way. He couldn’t hear properly; and so he couldn’t speak properly either.null

    Jesus had just come from the region of Tyre and Sidon, where he had cast out a demon from a young girl.  Now He again comes face to face with someone who has been attacked by the devil.  For this is Satan’s goal:  to disrupt and tear down the lives of those created in the image of God, to cause people trouble in both soul and body.  He does this in an attempt to turn our hearts away from the Lord.  

    It is not wrong to see the working of the devil in your physical troubles.  For wasn’t it through Satan’s temptations that sin entered the world, bringing with it sickness and pain and death itself?  Doesn’t Satan still seek to bring destruction and heartache, especially to the people of God? That is why St. Paul refers to his “thorn in the flesh,” his bodily ailment, as “a messenger of Satan to buffet me.”  Likewise, the Old Testament reading connects deafness and blindness and poverty to the work of “the terrible one” and “the scornful one,” namely, the devil.

    Nevertheless, the Lord uses even Satan’s destructive schemes to accomplish His own righteous purposes.  The Apostle Paul spoke of how although God wouldn’t take away his physical troubles, He taught Paul through those troubles to trust entirely in His grace and His power in Christ.  In this way the devil’s onslaughts are turned upside down so that they cause us to cling even more tightly to the Lord’s promised salvation.  

    You’ve probably experienced this in your own life.  Isn’t it true that you often turn to God most eagerly and pray to Him most passionately in difficult times–like when you’re facing financial or relationship difficulties, or in the midst of illness or bodily pain?  And so even through those bad things the devil, the destroyer, is turned against himself.  No matter what the devil does, God works it for good to those who believe in Jesus.  For though we may be weak of ourselves, yet we are made to be strong in the Lord.  Our trust is then directed ever more completely to God’s strength and mercy.  When Satan buffets us, the Holy Spirit draws us to pray in faith the words of the Psalm, “Make haste, O God, to deliver me!  Make haste to help me, O Lord!”

    However, we cannot pray in this way unless the Lord first opens our ears and unlooses our tongue.  For like the man in the Gospel we are by nature deaf and mute towards God.  Being bound by Satan even from birth, our ears are closed off and calloused towards God.  We’re tuned out.  We prefer to listen to other more entertaining voices or voices that promise more immediate help and success. We don’t naturally grasp God’s Word.  I Corinthians 2 says, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them.”

    The impediment in our hearing also causes an impediment in our talking, our praying.  It’s sort of like trying to have a conversation with headphones on and music playing.  If someone tries to talk to you, the noise keeps you from hearing them.  And if you try to speak back to them, your speech is liable to be slurred and funny sounding because you can’t really hear yourself.  You talk too loudly.  That’s also how it is in our relationship with God.  The noise of the world and of our own fallen nature keeps us from hearing Him speak and grasping His words.  And our speech back to Him, if there is any, is just loud gobbledygook, slurred and turned inward by sin.  In a very real way, we are just like the deaf-mute in today’s Gospel.

    The people bring this man to Jesus and beg Him to put His hand on him.  Immediately, Jesus takes the man 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, but only in Him. For you have been taken aside from the multitude to be His own.

    Jesus also does this away from the crowd because this wasn’t for show.  He wasn’t making sure this was videotaped so that it could be uploaded to YouTube and Facebook and go viral or maybe get on the news.  He was completely there for the deaf-mute, one on one, just as He is for you in the Word and Sacraments.

    Jesus uses a bit of sign language.  He puts His fingers right into the deaf man’s ears.  And then He spits and touches his tongue.  Jesus is hands-on.  He isn’t above lowering Himself to the point of making contact with this man’s ailment.  He literally touches the deaf mute’s problem as if to draw it out of him and absorb it into Himself.  When Jesus touched this man, God Himself was touching him.  Those were divine fingers in His ears.  For Jesus is God in the flesh, who came for this very purpose of sharing in our humanity and taking into Himself all that holds us in bondage so that He might destroy it and the devil forever.  Jesus wore our chains so that He might break them once and for all at Calvary.  Spitting and grabbing tongues and sticking fingers in ears doesn’t sound very spiritual, or even sanitary.  But that’s the earthy, ordinary way in which Jesus deals with us fallen human beings in order to save and restore us.

    Jesus looks up to His Father heaven.  Then Jesus sighs and says to the deaf mute, “Ephphatha,” “Be opened, Be released.”  Immediately his ears are opened and the impediment of his tongue is loosed, and he speaks plainly.  Jesus was not simply speaking to the man’s ears and tongue but to his whole person,”Be released!”  Jesus here is freeing this man from his bondage to Satan.  Jesus’ miracle is more than just evidence of his power over bodily ailments; it is evidence of His triumph over the devil.  Jesus’ words shatter the chains by which the evil one holds his victim bound.

    But of course, like any battle, that victory doesn’t come without a cost.  As Jesus is about to speak, He sighs, He groans.  Our Lord does this because He is making our pain and loneliness and troubles and sin His own.   He groaned and cried out for us on the cross.  The cost of our healing is His death.  But through that death Jesus is not defeated but victorious.  For in so doing He takes away the sin that gives Satan his power.  Jesus overcame all that makes us sigh and groan in this fallen world and put it to death.  And by rising bodily from the grave, He restored the bodies of all the faithful to life that is whole and immortal and imperishable–no more deafness (or even hearing aids), no more blindness and disease and death.  That resurrection life will be revealed to us and to the whole creation when Christ returns on the Last Day.  Isaiah prophesied of this when he said, “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness.  The humble also shall increase their joy in the Lord, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.  For the terrible one is brought to nothing, the scornful one is consumed.”

    All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He has sent His Son Jesus to open our ears and unloose our tongues, that we may believe in Him with our hearts and confess the faith with our mouths and be saved.  Jesus still sticks His fingers in your ears.  He really does!  For in the Scriptures the term “finger of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, when Christ preaches and teaches His words to you, the finger of God is being put into your ears, the Holy Spirit is coming to you to open your ears and your hearts and your minds, that you may believe in Christ and receive His life and salvation.  The Epistle says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”

    And Jesus still spits and grabs your tongue, too, in the Sacraments.  After all, what is baptism but water and words from the mouth of God?  This divine water and words are applied to you at the font to rescue you from your bondage to the evil one and to set you free as a child of God.  When you were baptized, Jesus said His “Ephphatha” to you. “Be opened, be released.”  You were marked with the sign of the holy cross by which Jesus destroyed the devil’s work and broke the chains of hell for you.  Released and liberated, the body and blood of Christ are now placed on your tongue for the forgiveness of your sins and that you may endure in the faith to the end.

    Let us then give praise to God, knowing and believing that whatever ailments the devil might yet inflict us with, he can do us no real or lasting harm.  For our bodies, together with our souls, have been redeemed through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Jesus is Lord over death and the devil, and therefore all those who are baptized into Him will be fully restored in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  Some of you have seen those videos of people having their hearing restored with cochlear implants.  If there is great and tearful joy in that, just consider the rejoicing that will occur for those who are in Christ in the resurrection of our bodies!  It’s hard to even imagine.  So even when it seems like age or heart disease or cancer are getting the best of you, even as you take your last breath, you are given to say confidently with St. Paul in Philippians 3, “Christ Jesus will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body by the power the enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”  

    Truly, Christ has done all things well.  Even in this place He has made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.  Trust in Him to do all things well for you.

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

Bread of the Curse, Bread of Blessing

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

    Bread is one of the most common foods there is.  Bread is in many ways a basic staple of life, even in this age of lower carb diets.  And yet we sometimes forget that the reason we eat bread is a result of our fall into sin.  Bread is a sign of the curse.  For God said to Adam and to all his descendants, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”

    There was no bread in paradise.  Before the Fall Adam and Eve simply ate the fruit of the trees and the vegetation which God had freely given, and which they were given to tend to.  Without any burdensome labor on their part, God provided to them all that they needed to sustain their lives.  There was no exhausting tilling of the fields or grinding the wheat or kneading and baking as with bread.  Rather, food was given to them in abundance as a gracious gift from their Creator.

    But through the temptation of the devil, that all changed.  Adam and Eve rebelled against God by reaching out for the one food that the Lord had not given them to eat, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  They wanted to do things their own way, be in charge of their own lives, become their own gods.  The devil promised them great things, but that promise turned out to be a lie.  Instead of gaining something, they ended up losing their life with God and were left empty and famished.null

    We, too, know the temptation to reach for that which God has not given, to consume the things and the philosophies of this world and to trust in them to bring us happiness and contentment.  Satan wants your spiritual diet to consist of satisfying your own desires, focusing not on the Lord and His words but on the pleasures and the honors of this temporal, passing world.  To appease your spiritual hunger, the devil tries to sell you junk food.  He hisses in your ear, “If you would just get that bigger and better and newer stuff, if you would just spend more time on entertainment and recreation and pleasure, if you would just buy in to the self-help spirituality of our culture, why then you would get where you want to be; then you would be fulfilled.”  But the devil is a liar.  He offers nothing of substance, nothing that lasts, like state fair cotton candy that melts away in the rain.  The more we feed on such things, the more empty and famished we will become.  None of these things can truly satisfy the gnawing hunger of the soul.

    And the eating of bread is meant to serve as a reminder of that.  Every time we have a dinner roll or toast or a sandwich, we should remember that we’re no longer in paradise.  We’re in a fallen, desert world that is vastly different from what God first made.  Romans 8 says that all creation groans under sin’s curse and is in bondage to decay.   Weeds and thistles infest the ground.  Children are brought forth in pain.  There is sickness and hardship, harsh weather and earthquakes.  We can sometimes come up with temporary solutions to these problems with technology or medical advancements.  But in the end, we are all given to eat the bread of death.

    However, into this barren world breaks the very Son of God Himself to save you.  For where is Jesus in the Gospel?  He is in the wilderness with a multitude of people who have nothing to eat, those who are feeling the effects of the curse very concretely.  Christ took on your human flesh and blood and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  Man’s sin turned the world from paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse on creation and restore you to paradise.    

    Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with your inward parts, your heart, your guts.  In other words Jesus feels for you deeply in His inner being with the greatest possible empathy.  So fully does Jesus feel for you in His gut and in His heart that He went so far as to make your problems His problems.  Jesus cares not only for the spiritual but also the physical welfare of these people.  He doesn’t want them to faint on the way. Jesus feels for what happens with your bodies.  He knows what you’re going through.  In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He made Himself a part of your blood and sweat and tears in order to redeem your bodies and souls and renew the fallen creation in which you live.

    That’s what is beginning to take place in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  But here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death and overcome the fall into sin.  You see a small glimpse of how it was in the beginning and how it will be even more so in the new creation of the age to come.

    Jesus would complete His work of undoing the fall and breaking the power of the curse on the cross.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly curse was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now flows to you and to all who believe in Him.  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Death and hell have been taken away from you through the cross.  You have been released to a new life, free and full, through the resurrection of Jesus.

    That’s why it’s important to pay attention to the fact that it was on the third day that this miracle was performed in the Gospel.  It is a tradition in the church to fast beginning on Good Friday in observance of our Lord’s holy death and burial.  But then the fast is broken on Easter, the third day, to partake in the feast of the living and resurrected Christ.  Even so, week by week throughout the year we fast in spirit with Jesus, denying ourselves and bearing His cross in our daily callings in this wilderness world.  But then the fast is broken on the third day, that is, in divine service, as we feast on the living Bread from heaven.

    Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  In the same way still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration,  and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  In the same way still today, Jesus uses the smallest amounts of bread to multiply His grace and feed and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

    When all had eaten there was more left over than when they started.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  So it is that the Lord’s love and provision and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out.  In particular this means that there is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it.  In fact, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  It’s not just that the Lord is going to restore you to what Adam and Eve knew in Eden.  He is going to exalt you to a status and a state even greater and better than Adam and Eve.  The place being prepared for us in heaven surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For by sharing fully in our humanity, Christ has lifted us up to the very throne and glory of God.  We’re not just going back to paradise, we’re going forward to a new creation.

    And all this Jesus has done by turning the curse into a blessing.  He takes the things that once were signs of death and makes them signs of life for us.  The deathly curse of the cross is now for us the thing which brings the blessing of life.  And the curse of bread is now for us the thing which brings the blessed body of Christ in the Sacrament.  Our Lord turns evil for good to redeem us.

    So now, as we eat the daily bread that God provides, be it a dinner roll or a wrap or a sandwich, we are reminded not only of the fall into sin but especially of Christ the living Bread who has undone the fall into sin and broken the curse.  Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which he may eat and never die, never to be separated from God and His goodness again.  

    In Christ, there is no sweating to work your way into God’s favor, no wages or merits to be earned from the Father.  There is only the gift of life in His Son.  As you receive this living bread that came down from heaven, you are being given a taste of paradise.  For heaven is where Christ is, and Christ is here for you.  “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him.”  

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

"Good Company" or "The Prodigal Son of God"

Luke 15:1-3,11-32
Trinity 3
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
Greenfield, WI

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

    You may know the old Greek proverb, “Bad company ruins good morals.”  St. Paul quotes it in 1 Corinthians 15.  And we know that it's true from our own experience.  If you hang out with people whose talk is foul-mouthed, you tend to start talking like they do.  If you spend a lot of time with those who look at spirituality and morality from an unScriptural perspective, you’ll tend to want to go with the flow of how the group is thinking and behaving.  And of course, “bad company ruins good morals” might be applied especially to the company we keep in our entertainment and the use of media.  If pop culture is someone’s daily company, with all of its scoffing and mocking humor, with its undermining and redefinition of marriage and sexual morality, with its assault on the sanctity of human life, that will certainly affect a person’s worldview and behavior negatively.  Christians, too, are tempted to see things not through the eyes of the Word but the eyes of the world.

    So it seems understandable, at least on the surface, why the Pharisees and scribes complained about the company that Jesus was keeping in today’s Gospel.  “This man receives sinners and eats with them!”  He wasn’t just keeping company with thieving tax collectors and conspicuous sinners; He was actually sharing a meal with them–a form of fellowship and closeness.  How could this man, this rabbi, dirty Himself and His reputation like that?  Was He lowering the standards of His teaching?  Was He condoning their sin?  It all just seemed wrong to the religious leaders.

    To explain what He was doing, Jesus told three parables–the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.  The first two especially show how Christ has come to seek out and save the lost, how He is willing to get down into the muck of our lives in order to help us, to call sinners to repentance–not to condone sin but to forgive sin.  Bad company may ruin good morals, but the good company of Jesus redeems and gives new life.  What brings joy to heaven is not the self-righteous morally upright but the one who repents and trusts in God’s mercy.

    Today’s parable of the lost son highlights that mercy of God.  A certain man had two sons.  The younger son tells his father that he wants his share of the inheritance.  He’s tired of waiting around for his dad to keel over.  He wants to move on with life and have some fun.  And so in his impatience and audacity, he makes this self-serving request of his father.  null

    The father could have rebuked him for his insolent attitude, but instead, he grants his request.  The father knows that he can’t coerce and force love from his son, and so he takes the hurt and lets him go, knowing that the son will likely have some very hard lessons to learn as a result.

    God also deals with us in the same way.  For we too have sometimes tried to use Him for our own ends, praying selfishly or using a religious cloak to justify our behavior.  In fact you could describe sin as the wish that God were dead, so that we could then live our lives the way we please.  God could sternly enforce obedience from us if He so chose.  But He doesn’t want slaves cowering in submission; He wants children who receive and return His love.  And so He sometimes lets us go our own way; He lets us mess up so that we can see how barren our life is apart from Him.

    And indeed the younger son’s life turned out about as barren as it could be.  He may have had fun partying with his friends and living the good life for a time.  But when his money ran out, so did his friends.  In the end he was left all alone, and the best job he could find was feeding pigs–the bottom of the barrel for a Jewish boy.  That’s the way sin always works.  It gives short term happiness and long term pain.  It lives for the moment and sacrifices eternity.

    When the younger son was so hungry that the pig food started to look good, he finally came to his senses.  He repented.  He realized what he had lost by leaving his father.  He realized that even his father’s servants were doing better than him.  He was sorry for what he did.  But notice that sorrow isn’t what brought him back.  It was the memory of his father’s goodness that moved him to turn and head toward home.  In the same way, we are made able to truly repent only in the certainty that we have a merciful heavenly Father.  Being sorry is only the beginning; Judas was sorry, too, you recall.  Believing that your heavenly Father will receive you back for the sake of Christ in spite of your unworthiness is the heart of the matter.  True repentance includes faith.  Romans 2 says that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repent.

    However, even with his repentance, the younger son underestimated his father by thinking that he could only be allowed back as a servant.  But the father hadn’t written him off like that.  He’s waiting, looking down the road, hoping that his lost son will return.  It says here, “But when (the younger son) was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”  Dignified men don’t run, but the father was compelled to by his love, hurrying to welcome his son back.  

    The father goes out to the son, even as God is always going out and reaching out to us with His mercy.  And notice that the father embraces the son even before the son can say a word, even before he can make his confession!  In this we see that God doesn’t receive us back and forgive us based on how well we repent or because we formulate the right words.  God forgives us and receives us to Himself because of His grace and mercy toward us in Christ.  His very nature is love.  It’s all based on His undeserved and unmerited kindness.  There is the saying that confession is good for the soul, and that is true.  But we learn here that absolution is even better for the soul, for the mercy of God is what restores and saves us.  That’s what the father is doing here–forgiving and welcoming his son back to the family.

    And it’s not just a conditional or probationary status that he’s given until he proves himself.  Rather, the Father treats him in the way that only a full, honored son would be.  He puts a distinguished robe on him.  He gives him the family ring with all the authority that brings with it.  He puts sandals on his feet, for only the servants would be barefoot.  And the father throws a party, to celebrate that his son who was “dead” is alive again.  

    This is the picture of God’s compassionate love for you.  God’s servants, the holy angels, rejoice over the sinner who repents.  The OT reading said that God delights, He delights! in showing mercy.  You don’t have to prove yourself first.  Rather God embraces us fully as His children with all the blessings that brings, so great is His joy to have us home.  

    In fact so much does God want to have us with Himself that He made His own Son to be like the younger son.  When it comes right down to it, Jesus is the real prodigal son in this parable.  It says here that the father gave to the younger son of his livelihood, or literally his “substance”– just as we confess in the Creed that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.  Then the Son of the Father goes to a far country, which is to say, the Son descends to earth and becomes man for us.  Here He blows His wealth and His substance consorting with tax collectors and sinners and the likes of us.  He is prodigal and beautifully excessive in the way He dishes out His grace and mercy toward us.  He loses it all for you, dying in your place as if He were the rebellious sinner, to win your forgiveness.  Then Jesus arises and returns to His Father, who exalts Him to His right hand, and gives Him the name that is above every name, rejoicing that He who was dead is alive again, that He who was lost for a time to the grave has been found triumphant over sin, death, and the devil.  

    Once you were dead and lost.  But God raised you to life in His Son Jesus.  The Father now says to you, “Your brother, My Son was dead, and is alive again.  Repent and find your life in Him.  No matter how low it has gotten for you, Jesus has gone to the lowest depths on your behalf in order to become the way back for you. You’re not an outcast stepchild here.  You are robed in Jesus’ righteousness at the font and the family ring is put on your finger.  The banquet table of the supper is laid before you, the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  You’re a full-fledged child in My house through Jesus.  There is great joy in heaven for each one of you who are here in penitent faith.  Welcome home.”

    Now before we finish, we need to talk about the older son.  Notice that the father has to go out to him, too.  He too had left home in a sense, forsaking the father’s love by thinking He had to earn it, that his father’s favor was a reward for his good behavior.  “All these years I’ve served you” he says, talking more like a servant than a son.  But here, too, the Father gives all.  He says, “All that I have is yours.  That’s the way it’s always been.”  And in the end the question is left unanswered: does the older brother believe that?  Do we?  Do you believe that the fullness of God’s mercy is yours apart from any merit or worthiness in you?  Do you believe that it’s all a free gift in Christ?

    Jesus declares in today’s Gospel that it most certainly is.  Let us, then, never become like the older brother, whose legalism and self-righteousness kept him outside of the household and away from the joy of the feast.  Let us never think that there are certain sinners who aren’t worthy of God’s mercy, as if Jesus didn’t shed His blood for them, too.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–only sinners.  If we refuse to keep company with all who repent and trust in Him, we are refusing to keep company with Christ Himself, just like the Pharisees.  We are putting ourselves outside of the joy of the household.  Only as we repent can we rejoice in the repentance of another.  Only as we see ourselves as lost sinners can we rejoice that Jesus welcomes penitent sinners to His table.  “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”  That’s good company.  So come in and make merry and celebrate the Lord’s mercy.  In Him the lost are found and the dead live.

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