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The Kingdom Prepared For You

Matthew 25:31-46
Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (Trinity 26)

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

    Why should you do good works?  There are two very simple reasons: God has commanded them, and your neighbor is served by them.  You shouldn’t do good works, though, as if God needed your service.  He’s perfectly fine and complete without anything that you do.  In fact, any good that you have the ability to do came from Him in the first place, right?  What a foolish thing it is, then, to try to shove your good works into His face thinking that you can earn your way into heaven, as if He somehow owes you for what you’ve done.  The Lord doesn’t owe anyone anything.  

    God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.  All you have to do is look around for two seconds to see that this world is full of need that is to be met with works of love–and not just charity, but the ordinary, day to day fulfilling of your callings.  Today’s Gospel reading shows us where our good works are to be directed–not up to God as if to earn a merit badge, but down and out toward your neighbor, even toward “the least of these My brethren.”

    All that is needed for heaven is faith–the empty hands of faith that receive the works of Jesus for you and that cling to Him and His cross alone.  But then, with hands filled with the mercy and goodness of Christ, all that is needed for the neighbor is love which passes along Christ’s mercy and serves the neighbor in need.  And those two things are connected and go together.  Faith in Christ gives birth to deeds of love.null

    Though faith is unseen, and love often goes unnoticed, all will be revealed for what it is on the Last Day.  When Jesus comes in glory with all His angels, He will judge both the living and the dead.  And His judgment will reveal who are the sheep and who are the goats, who are the believers and who are the unbelievers.  What is now hidden will be uncovered.  That’s actually what the word “apocalypse” means, the uncovering.  The private will be made public.  Everyone, on the Last Day, will be revealed for who they are: either a sheep of Jesus’ flock or a goat.  Everyone will be seen for how they stand in God’s sight, the faithful or the faithless.  And it will be a day no one can avoid.  “All nations” will be gathered.  Everyone.  No one left out.    

    Your life as a baptized believer prior to the Last Day is hidden before the world.  Colossians 3 says, “You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  That passage also describes the end, too:  “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  And Romans 8 says that “the entire creation groans and eagerly waits for the sons of God to be revealed.”  So that’s a good way to think about what’s going to happen on the Last Day–it will be a revelation, the curtains and the covers will be pulled back; everyone and everything will be seen for what it is.

    In some ways we’re already getting a taste of the ugly side of that with all the recent media-fed scandals involving politicians and celebrities and actors.  It seems no one is as good they would like to appear.  And we have to admit that if everything were reported about our lives, if every thought, word, and deed were made known before all, we would not look so good ourselves.  The old Adam in a Harvey Weinstein or a Kevin Spacey or a Roy Moore or an Al Franken is fundamentally the same that inhabits each one of us, and gives birth to our particular sins.  The only difference is that their old Adam was more fully unleashed by power and fame and wealth.  Our only hope of being able to stand unashamed on the Last Day, then, is if our sinful nature has already been dealt with before then.  And it has!  That’s what the cross is all about.  That’s what your baptism is all about.  It is written in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life . . . For we know that our old self [the old Adam] was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”  We have been crucified with Christ by water and the Word; our sin has been answered for and done away with.  And so there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:1).

    That’s the first thing that will be revealed and uncovered on the Last Day.  Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats.  Sheep on His right.  Goats on His left.   To the sheep:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.”   To the goats:  “Depart from me, you who are cursed.”   To the sheep:  “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”  To the goats:  “Depart … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    Notice that the separation of the sheep from the goats comes before any talk of their works. The sheep are not at the Lord’s right hand because of the works they have done, but because of who and what they are in Christ by His grace.  All this had been prepared long before their works, from the very foundation of the world, it says.  Salvation is by God’s election and doing, not ours, as Ephesians 1 says, “(The Father) chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”

    On the Last Day, once the sheep and goats are divided up, then their works will be judged and evaluated by the Lord.  And the works of the sheep give evidence of the fact that they are indeed the blessed children of God through faith in Jesus.  The Last Day judgment simply makes that fact plain.  Works are counted as good before the Lord only when they flow from faith in Jesus.  No work is good in God’s sight without faith in Jesus, for it is written, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).  And it is also written, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).  You see, not only does Jesus’ blood cleanse us, it cleanses our works, too, and makes them holy.  Such good works provide evidence of our faith in Jesus.

    And yet even that will not be fully revealed until the Last Day. This is a very important point.  Even this evidence of our faith, the evidence of good works, is something that finally only Jesus the Judge can see right now as we live before Judgment Day.  So, while we live before the Last Day, we should not look to ourselves and our good works as proof that we are sheep.  It is a dangerous thing to look to yourself for the assurance that you are saved.  After all, unbelievers do humanly good works and acts of charity, too.  It’s faith in Jesus that makes all the difference.  Always, remember, the life of the believer is hidden and creation eagerly awaits the revelation of who God’s people are!

    So, in the meantime, Christians live in this world side by side with unbelievers.  And most of the time you can’t tell a huge difference, especially if you only look at what they do in the world.  There is no “Christian” way to deliver the mail, fix a flat tire, or plow a field.  You would hope Christians would be more ethical and hard-working and loving; but pagans can be ethical and hard-working and loving, too–though the ultimate motivation for that will be different.  The difference is internal, and it is the difference between faith in Jesus or unbelief in Jesus.  On the Last Day, Jesus, who judges the heart, will reveal the faith or the unbelief.   And the only works that will be judged good before Jesus are the ones that flow from faith in Him.

    Faith in Jesus is a divine work in us.  It transforms us and gives us a new birth brought about by the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel.  Faith in Jesus slays the old Adam and gives us the life of Christ, making us new people in heart, spirit, and mind.  Such faith by its very nature is active in good works.  Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done.  Before the question is even asked, faith is already doing them.  Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwells within us through faith, shows love to the neighbor in word and deed.  

    In fact, good works come so naturally to faith that the Christian most often does them without even recognizing them.  Notice that the sheep are surprised to find out that the food and drink they served to the hungry and thirsty was actually a meal served to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  That the sick neighbor they helped was actually Jesus Himself hidden in that neighbor.  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.”  Plus, they likely forgot all the instances where they did these things in the first place.  It's just what they did.

    Good works are done best when we become forgetful of having done them. Our works become a problem when we want to drag them with us into heaven, when we’ve got the score sheets and the tabulations, as if they are a bargaining chip to use in a salvation poker game.  No, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is all that is needed for heaven.  All our good works are to be left down here, for our neighbor in need.  In our neighbor who is sick or hungry or in prison, we learn to see Jesus, who fasted for us, who was arrested and afflicted and stripped of his clothing for us to fully redeem us.  The eyes of our faith are always and fully on Christ the crucified, whose works alone save us.  Living in that faith, we see Jesus also in our neighbor and show our love for Him by loving them.

    On the Last Day our faith will give way to sight.  We will see Jesus as He is, the crucified and risen Savior of the world.  To Him every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the everlasting joy of the sheep, to the everlasting shame of the goats.  On the Last Day, it will be revealed who you are.  But, of course, you don’t have to wait until the Last Day to know.  After all, the Son of Man and Judge of all, Jesus comes here every Sunday in the divine service as His Word is proclaimed.  And He speaks His Word to you, saying, “All your sin is forgiven!  I put my Name on you in your Baptism!  You are my sheep.  Have no fear little flock.  I am your Good Shepherd.  I laid down my life for you.  I was raised from the dead.  And I live and reign to give you life and peace and joy forever.

    Jesus and His cross is always the dividing line between the sheep and the goats.  The same Jesus who was crucified between a believing sheep and an unbelieving goat on Good Friday feeds you with His own body and blood at the foot of the cross, setting you apart here from the unbelieving world.  He joins Himself to you so that you will live eternally with Him in His kingdom, the one prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  And even the good works you do were prepared for you by the Lord.  For Ephesians 2 says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  Do you see?  It’s all God’s grace; it’s all what He has done for you and given to you in His Son Jesus.

    Every divine service is a little judgment day where Jesus judges you to be forgiven.  Every week He is here with all His holy angels as we gather around His altar to receive His gifts of grace.  On the Last Day you surely will hear Him declare:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Brent Kuhlman for some of the above)

Death, Our Enemy and Our Salvation

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Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

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

    Death is our enemy.  The Scriptures make that very clear.  In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul writes that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  As I have often preached to you before, God did not create us to die.  It’s our fall into sin that brought the curse of death.  The new agers like to talk about how death can be a beautiful thing, just another step in the journey of life.  But those who talk that way are ignorant.  Death is ugly; death is painful; death is a destruction of the body and the life God created.  

    However, Jesus has brought a new reality to our death.  Though it remains the enemy, now that Jesus has embraced our death by His cross, there is something good about it as well.  A church father named Ambrose once said, “We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death.” What he meant was not that we should be morbid or suicidal—that we should look for ways to die, or be careless with our health, or simply give up on life.  What Ambrose meant is like the words of St. Paul in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

    What that means is that we should not be so tied to the things of this life, to living in the here and now, that we think death is the worst thing that could happen to us.  Instead, we should always remember that in Christ death is a deliverance for us—a deliverance from the ravages of sin, a deliverance from being run by our passions, a deliverance from all sorrow, grief, and heartache.  What’s good about death is that our sinful nature will be finally and forever gone from us, and so also will all of the effects of sin’s curse as we await the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.

    This is what the cross of Jesus has done for us–by it He has turned our enemy, death, against itself into something that works good for us in the end.  For in Him, death is now the doorway to life.  So let us be careful to get this right.  Death is not just an escape from the harsh realities of this world.  Much more it is an escape to the comfort of life in God’s presence.  You often hear at funerals people say how the deceased “is in a better place.”  And that’s fine–though I’m not a fan of cliches like that, since most non-Christians could agree with that statement.  I’d rather say something like  the deceased is with a better Person, with the Redeemer Jesus.  He’s the One who makes heaven what it is. A heaven without Jesus at the center is just a fairy tale.  That’s how St. Paul could speak of being hard pressed between wanting to live and wanting to die, for his desire was to depart and be with Christ, which is far benulltter.

    Today’s reading from Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of what we are escaping to, in contrast to where we are now.  It is written that those who have died trusting in the Lord will live with the Lord.  He who sits on the throne will dwell among them.  They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not scorch them; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  No more sorrow or crying or pain.  

    That is what we must learn to long for and set our hearts on.  And that vision should govern how we live.  When it does, then our eyes will not be captivated by what we desire that really doesn’t last that long.  And our minds will not controlled by how much or how little we have.  And our hearts will not be lusting after whatever feeds our appetites.  Instead, when we live with the vision of Revelation, with the mindset of Paul, then we will live for others and for the things of the world to come.  And then we will live fearing nothing, except losing life with God and the kingdom of heaven.

    God saves us from death through the death of Jesus.  His death is so good, so strong, so effective that it converts and transforms our death to be like His.  We are baptized into Christ’s death, and so we are also baptized into His life and resurrection.  Death no longer gets the last word, because we are in Him who conquered death and the grave.  So even though death still causes us to mourn–for it is still the enemy that tears away our loved ones from us–yet we do not mourn as those who have no hope.  We also rejoice at the death of those who are in Christ.  We celebrate their victory.  We look forward in hope to their resurrection.  Those who worship Jesus are not gone forever.  They have just gone before us.  So death is no longer something to be avoided at all costs, for the Son of God Himself did not think of it as being beneath His dignity; nor did He seek to escape it.  Like our Lord, then, we also can embrace it when it comes.  For He is the One who brings good out of evil, joy out of pain, life out of death.

    The saints know this.  And by the way, when I refer to saints, I am referring to all Christians.  A saint simply means “a holy one,” one who has been forgiven and made holy in Christ.  Saints are not only those who have died who are with the Lord, but also us who are still alive, who believe in the Lord.  All Saints Day refers to the saints in heaven and the saints on earth, all Christians Day.

    However, usually when we talk about the saints, we do mean those who have died, and especially those whose lives were illustrations of God’s grace and who gave us an example of faith to follow.  In particular there are two kinds of heroes of the faith whom we usually refer to as saints. The first are those who were put to death because of what they believed and taught, because they clung to their Lord more than to this life.  These we call “martyrs,” a word which literally means “witnesses.”  The second group are those who were not put to death, but who still suffered ridicule or persecution for righteousness’ sake.  These we call “confessors” because they confessed the faith. Like the martyrs, the confessors also suffered much for the Faith. The martyrs gave testimony by how they died, and what they died for; while the confessors gave testimony by how they lived and what they lived for. The martyrs witnessed to the Faith with their blood; the confessors witnessed to the Faith with the purity and steadfastness of their confession. And so, because of their blood, the martyrs are commemorated with the color red; and because of their pure confession and steadfastness, the confessors are commemorated with the color white, as we have on the altar today.

    Yet the colors red and white are both the same in the end, aren’t they.  For what does it say of the saints in Revelation? “These are the ones who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Do you see the colors? Red makes everything white.  Robes are made white because they’ve been washed in red blood.  But not just any red blood. It must be the red blood of the Lamb of God Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed to take away the sin of the world; the same Lamb of God who will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.

    That is what the martyrs and confessors and indeed all Christians have in common—the red blood of the Lamb which makes them, which makes you white and pure, cleansed from all sin, before God our Father.  So it is this blood of Christ, poured over you in Holy Baptism and poured into you in the Lord’s Supper; it is this blood, which was shed and poured out for the salvation of all men, and even the whole creation; it is this blood that binds all saints together in the one true faith, and which gives us courage to follow in the train of those who have gone before us.  The red blood clothes us in white, as it is written in Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.”  The Lamb’s wool, his robe of righteousness, covers us.

    That is how we are blessed, according to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.  We are blessed because we are wrapped up in Him who is the fulfillment of all of these beatitudes.  For wasn’t Jesus poor in spirit—by giving His riches to take on the poverty of our sin and death? Didn’t He mourn—especially when He wept over His people who turned away from Him?  Isn’t He the meekest of all men, and did He not continually hunger and thirst after true righteousness?  Isn’t He the very definition of mercifulness and purity in heart? Is He not the peacemaker, who reconciles God and man in Himself? And finally, of all men who ever lived, wasn’t He the most persecuted and reviled for the sake of righteousness?
    
    To be blessed, then, is to live in Christ by faith, to have your life look like Christ’s–to be poor and humble in spirit, to mourn the sad state of this world, to be merciful even to those who don’t deserve it, to be persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, and ultimately to die.  Even death is a blessing now in Christ.  For through Him, yours is the kingdom of heaven.  

    And that kingdom of heaven is here for you now in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  For Christ is here with you and for you with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  And so by partaking of the supper, you are with Him.  And that is heaven on earth.  Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are joined with us.

    So, fellow saints of God, let us endure in the faith in this time of tribulation.  For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.  Let us embrace death in Christ, that we may also embrace His life forever.

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

(Much of the above was adapted from a sermon by John Fenton.)

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 ✠

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