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Giving Thanks for Our Daily Bread

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

    This day has been set aside by our government for the giving of thanks, especially for our national and temporal blessings.  Interestingly, Thanksgiving first became a national holiday in 1863, right in the middle of the conflict and bloodshed of the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln saw God’s providence in the pivotal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwells in the heavens.”  There is certainly also something for us to learn about giving thanks even in the midst of conflict and troubles.  And so as we think about all of our temporal blessings, it is fitting that we consider and meditate on the 4th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  If you would, please turn to the back of your bulletins and answer aloud the questions that I will ask you from the catechism. 

What is the 4th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?

“Give us this day our daily bread.”
What does this mean?
God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.null

    Let’s stop there for a moment.  “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.”  Think about what that means.  It means that God’s goodness is not dependent on your praying.  The Scriptures say that He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and He sends His rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  The Lord is good.  Period.  If you stop praying, He’s not going to stop being good.  So don’t think that your praying is the key element that gets God to do things, as if we can manipulate Him to do what we want.  The truth is that very often it seems to be the unfaithful and the unscrupulous who are doing better at acquiring daily bread than Christians!  In fact most of Psalm 73 is a lament at how prosperous the wicked often are.  And yet the Psalm also confesses trust in the ways of the Lord, who brings down the unrepentant to utter desolation and destruction in the end.  So, we don’t pray “Give us this day our daily bread” in order to make God do something He otherwise wouldn’t.

    But that raises the question, “Why should we pray for daily bread at all, then?”  We do so because in praying this petition, we are drawn to turn our hearts toward our merciful and generous God, to remember that He is the One who gives us our daily bread and all things, and we learn in that way to give Him thanks and honor as our gracious Lord.  God gives us this prayer not for His benefit but for ours, so that we might learn to look to Him for all our needs and trust in Him and cling to Him, lest we forget about Him and turn away from Him and begin trusting in ourselves, to our own destruction.  That’s the real danger that we face as fallen sinners, isn’t it?  To think we’ve gotten where we are in life by our own sweat and hard work and good choices and intelligence.  That’s especially a danger when times are tough.  If we’re doing OK, we can become proud that we put ourselves in a better place than those who are struggling.  But if we’re struggling, we can burden ourselves with all this overwhelming guilt as if it’s all up to us and we’re the ones who control everything.  In both cases, whether it’s pride or despair, thanks toward God and faith in Him is completely lacking.  There is no looking to Him as the source of every blessing for which we should give thanks.  

    Moses warns us in particular against pride in the OT reading, “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’” When we are unthankful, it is because we have forgotten that every good thing that we have in our life is an undeserved gift from our merciful heavenly Father, for which we should thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

     One way you’ll be able to tell that most people don’t really get this point, even on Thanksgiving Day, is in the way they talk about giving thanks.  I always like to mention this, because it’s key:  If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that while people may talk about what they’re thankful for, there’s almost no talk about who they’re thankful to.  There’s no mention of the one who receives our thanks, no mention of God or the Lord.  Or else they’re just expressing thanks to other people, which is fine, but entirely misses the point of the holiday.  Just as Christmas has in many ways become Christ-less in our culture, so also Thanksgiving has become God-less.  Sometimes I think when people say they’re thankful for something, they just mean they’re glad they have it or they feel good about it.  So be sure when you talk about what you’re thankful for that you say, “I’m thankful to God for this or that.”  For ultimately it’s not our giving of thanks, but who we’re giving thanks to that matters.

Let’s continue with the catechism:  
What is meant by daily bread?
Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

    As I’ve already been indicating, when we pray for daily bread, we are asking for more than just food.  We are also praying for everything that is necessary for us to receive it and enjoy it.  It’s hard to enjoy your daily bread when you’ve got rude neighbors or a grouchy spouse or bad health or violence in the streets.  And so when we give thanks for daily bread, our hearts and minds should think beyond the turkey and stuffing on the table, and consider also the farmer’s field and the weather and the trucker who transports and the baker who bakes and the store which sells and the employment by which we earn our money to buy and civil order in society and so forth.  All of this is in God’s hands.  All of this is what we need and ask for in this petition so that our bodily needs might be provided for.

    And yet, we should never forget that this petition comes in 4th place in the Lord’s Prayer, not 1st or 2nd or even 3rd.  That is meant to teach us something, namely, that daily bread is not the most important thing.  First comes God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will; and only then comes the daily needs of this life.  You see, the Lord preserves and protects life not simply because He created it, but especially in order to save it for eternity.  The reason He feeds even the wicked and the unbeliever is so that the unbeliever might repent and believe.  That is His will–not just to provide for you for a time, but to have you with Himself forever.  

    And so our receiving of daily bread is ultimately meant to draw us to the even more important receiving of the Bread of Life, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Just as God provides food for both the good and the evil, so also our Lord Jesus died on the cross for all, for the morally upright and for the immoral, for the noble and the shameful, for those who believe in Him and for those who do not.  The Lord is good, and His goodness is shown in His mercy toward people like us, that He took the punishment for all of our ingratitude and pride and sinful self-love, and by His suffering and death He forgave us and freed us from eternal judgment.  This is the greatest blessing for which we give thanks today, that the Living Bread from Heaven has been given to us, Bread which we may eat of and never die.  As Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.  And the bread which I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  It’s no coincidence that we pray  “Give us this day our daily bread” in the liturgy right before we receive Holy Communion.  For that petition (and indeed every petition of the Lord’s Prayer)  is answered most perfectly in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for our forgiveness.  

    And so our Lord exhorts His disciples and us in today’s Gospel: Don’t rejoice simply in the fact that the spirits are subject to you, that you have certain spiritual or material gifts.  Don’t simply give thanks to God for your house or car or job or family.  Rather, rejoice especially in this, that He has written your names in heaven by the blood of Christ.  You who are in Christ are in the Book of Life.  You are saved and redeemed and reconciled to God.  You are His baptized chosen ones.  And if you have that, you have it all–even if you’re unemployed or struggling to pay the bills, even if your health is failing, even if there’s conflict in your life or in our nation.  In Jesus you have the unimaginable riches of heaven.  In Him you have the perfect health of His resurrection life and His victory over the grave.  You are children of God’s kingdom and citizens of heaven.  So it is written, “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?”  That’s how St. Paul could say in today’s Epistle, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  

    God grant that Paul’s faithful attitude may also be our own, that our prayers and petitions may be filled with thanksgiving to God for all of His fatherly love toward us.  “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”  Amen.

The Lord Comes as a Thief

I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:1-13

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

    We heard it last week from St. Peter.  We hear it again today from St. Paul.  “The day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night.”  Our Lord Himself says the same thing in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I am coming as a thief.”  That’s certainly an odd sort of image to associate with our Savior Jesus, isn’t it.  But there is something for us to learn from the fact that our Lord comes to us like a bandit, a criminal.  

    Thievery is something we would more readily associate with the devil.  For Satan is indeed the thief and swindler of humanity.  He came to us in the garden like a con-man, flattering with his tongue, smooth-talking.  He told our first parents that they were missing out on a great deal that God was keeping to Himself.  If they would just eat of the forbidden fruit, then they would be like God themselves.  Turning them from God’s words to his own deceitful words, the devil robbed them blind.  Enticing them to try to be like God, he stole away their humanity and the glory in which they were created.  He pilfered their very lives.  

    That’s why you sons of Adam and daughters of Eve find yourselves in your present fallen state.  The truth is that we are now less than human, a disfigured shadow of what we were created to be.  We can sometimes feel that in our very souls, that things just aren’t right.  This inhumanity shows itself in our relationships with others–in anger and disrespect and lusts and jealousies and petty grudges and gossip.  And it shows itself in our relationship with God, too.  Instead of being human, creatures under a Creator, and honoring Him above all things, we would rather be like God, running our own lives, doing things our own way, following our own ideas.  The result for us is the same as it was for Adam, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”  We’ve been robbed by the serpent; we’ve been mugged and left to die.null

    But just as God often punishes one thief by another thief in this world, so that the robber ends up losing what he stole, so also God punishes the devil by sending His Son as a thief.  The Son of God became the Son of man for that very purpose, to steal and snatch back our lost humanity from the evil one and to restore us to fellowship with God again.  

    Just think of how our Lord entered into this world.  Was it with great fanfare?  No, He came like a thief–quietly, hidden in the shadows, with nobody but some shepherds noticing His arrival.  Jesus came on the scene under cover, secretly, like a holy burglar, to win back for you what the devil stole away.  

    Our Lord already began to do that in the very act of becoming man.  By taking on your body and soul, Jesus redeemed and cleansed your humanity with His divine holiness.  God has greatly exalted you by becoming not an angel or any other creature but a true man, your blood brother.  He partook fully of your humanity so that in Him you might become truly human again.  

    Jesus was born like a thief, and He also died as one.  For He was crucified between two robbers.  And in fact that’s what He was.  Not only did He come to rob the devil of his victory over you, He accomplished that by robbing you of your sin.  He stole away from you every uncleanness, every damnable failure to love, along with every hurtful and evil thing that has been done to you.  He robbed you of it all, took it as His own, and demolished it in His death.  It was through the tree in the garden that Satan conquered man, and so it was also by a tree, the holy cross, that Christ conquered Satan and reconciled man to God again.  It was by death that Satan stole away man’s glory; and so it is by the death of Christ and His resurrection to life again that the glory of man is recaptured and that your humanity is restored.  

    And today’s Epistle tells us that there’s one more thing our Lord is going to do like a thief.  He’s going to come back to this world suddenly and unexpectedly.  A robber doesn’t announce when he’s coming.  He tries to catch people unawares.  In fact Jesus once said, “If the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.  Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”  

    If you found out that sometime tonight someone was going to try to break into your house and steal all your valuables, you’d take steps to make sure that didn’t happen, right?  You’d be awake and standing watch around the clock.  That way you’d be prepared to “greet” the thief upon his arrival.  Well, the same sort of thing is true with the day of the Lord.  Jesus has said that He’s coming back.  He will return to judge the living and the dead.  We don’t know when it’s going to be.  Only God does.  But He has said, “Surely, I am coming soon.”  We are given to watch for Christ’s return as diligently as if we were watching for a thief coming to our house.  We are to be ready and prepared for Jesus’ arrival; for it could be at any time.  When you least expect it, expect it.
    
    We need to be on guard, then, against being lulled into a sense of complacency while we wait.  This is what Paul speaks of in the Epistle, “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman.  And they shall not escape.”  Beware of that worldly way of thinking which lives for the moment without a view to Jesus’ return.  “Everything’s just fine.  Why should I be preoccupied with the coming of the Lord?  I’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see.”

    That is precisely the attitude of the five foolish virgins in the Gospel.  They thought they had their bases covered.  They had a little oil in their lamps.  Why overdo it?  Why burden yourself with too much oil?  Lighten up!  Live a little!

    The lamps in the parable are the Word of Christ.  For the Psalmist says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet.”  The oil in the lamps is the Holy Spirit, who creates and sustains the flame of faith in Christ.  To be like the foolish is to fail to give proper attention to Christ’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit.  It is to ignore the Lord’s preaching and the Lord’s Supper, or merely to go through the motions.  When these instruments of the Holy Spirit are neglected, the flame of faith is in danger of going out.  The foolish thought they had their spiritual life all together.  But they were not prepared for a delay; they weren’t ready to watch for the long haul.  And then the call finally comes at midnight; time has run out.  And the foolish are left in a panic, scrambling to get oil, banging on a locked door saying “Lord, Lord, open to us!” and hearing the awful words, “I don’t know you.”

    We should remember that we know neither when Christ is returning, nor when the day of our own death is coming.  Therefore, the Psalmist prays, “Lord make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am.  My age is as nothing before you; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  

    On your own you are nothing but a dark mist.  But Christ has enlightened you with the gift of His Spirit in the waters of baptism.  That’s why Paul says in the epistle, “You, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.  You are all sons of light and sons of the day.”  For you have been united with Christ, who is the Son of light.  Therefore, “let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.”


    That is the way of the five wise virgins.  Those who are wise act as if there is nothing so important as the arrival of the bridegroom.  As they tend to their daily callings and enjoy the good gifts of creation, they do so always with an eye toward Jesus’ return.  That’s what they’re really living for and watching for.  And so they don’t want to cut it close when it comes to the oil in their lamps.  They want to have “oil enough and more” as the hymn says.  And so they “devote themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”  The wise seek to heed the words of St. Paul in Colossians, “Set your minds on things above, not on things on the earth.  For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

    The wise probably seemed way over-prepared, lugging around those extra jars of oil along with their lamps.  But in the end their wisdom was vindicated as they joined in the bridegroom’s procession and entered into the wedding hall.  So also Christians may appear to be overdoing it, going to divine service each week, meditating on God’s Word, praying and watching for Christ’s return, when they could be doing other things.  But in the end, such wisdom will be vindicated, when our Bridegroom returns to bring us into the new heavens and the new earth in which there is no more sorrow or crying or pain or death, but only perfect joy in God’s presence.  “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, God has granted you to be among those who are wise.  For the Holy Spirit has made you wise unto salvation through Gospel of Christ the crucified.  “Assuredly,” the Lord says, “I know you in your baptism.  I have forgiven you and redeemed you and claimed you as my own.”  Jesus is the One who day by day and week by week gives you His Word and Spirit, plenty of oil to burn for a lifetime of watching for His return.  You are ready for the wedding feast on the Last Day because Christ prepares you for it by giving you a foretaste of that feast each week in Holy Communion.  The Gospel cry rings out again in this place today, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming!  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar!”  We will not be surprised or caught off guard at Jesus’ second coming because we’ve long been in the habit of going out to meet him in His divine service.

    The Lord will come like a thief in the night.  Let us watch and be ready that we may rejoice in that day.

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

Mocking and Longsuffering

2 Peter 3:3-14

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

    Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the path that sinners take, nor sit in the seat of mockers.”  One of the defining characteristics of the ungodly is that they are mockers.  They revel in making fun of stuff.  They delight in tearing down the good gifts of God and His teaching and the things that make for order and peace in our lives, and they do little to build up what is good and right.  This is the way of a good deal of today’s comedy and entertainment, mocking and scoffing and making parodies of people and institutions, and then walking away and blaming others for the rubble that remains.  Hidden beneath the mockery is an unbelieving heart.  

    Now that’s not to say that all mocking and scoffing is wrong.  In the Old Testament the prophet Elijah famously mocked the prophets of Baal as they danced around their altar and called on their god to send down fire on their sacrifice.  Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”  Idolatry in all its forms is to be mocked, along with the foolishness of those who oppose God’s ways.  Psalm 2 speaks of how, when God looks down at all the scheming and conniving of the rulers of this world, as if they’re the ones in control, the Lord laughs at them and scorns them.  The God/god we truly serve is often revealed in what it is that we mock and make fun of.

    The Scriptures warn us to beware of engaging in worldly mocking and scoffing.  And especially today, the Scriptures warn us to be prepared to be on the receiving end of ridicule because of who we are as the people of God.  You’re going to have a hard time being a Christian in this world if you’re going to be all worried about what people say about you, if you’re trying to remain popular with the secular and pagan types that are all around you.  

 null   Peter reminds us in today’s Epistle, “Scoffers will come in the last days, walking according to their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’”  “For almost 2000 years you Christians have been talking about Jesus’ return.  It hasn’t happened yet.  Why should I believe it ever will?”  Notice Peter states that they say this because they walk “according to their own lusts.”  Their way of life is to follow their own passions and desires and appetites.  The notion of a God who might one day judge their behavior doesn’t fit in very well with the way they want to live.  And so they deal with that by scoffing at the idea, mocking it and making fun of it as stupid and ignorant.

    But Peter goes on to point out that they do this by willfully forgetting the truth.  They purposely ignore reality in order to justify themselves.  That is why those who object to Christian teaching are becoming increasingly bold and condescending in their speech–it takes a lot of passion and effort to fight against what you know deep down is true.  St. Paul speaks in Romans 1 about how the unrighteous “suppress the truth” that is clearly evident in creation.  Unbelief pushes the truth down and out of the mind so that people can rationalize the way they think and act.

    All of this is not unlike how it was in the days before the flood.  Genesis 6 says, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”   And so the flood came.  But before that it took Noah decades to build the ark.  In the meantime the Scriptures say he was a “preacher of righteousness,” warning people of the coming judgment.  But no one paid attention.  They surely mocked him for his building project.  We heard it in the Gospel last week, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married . . . until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”  As we live in this ungodly and perverse world, Peter reminds us that there is another judgment coming, this time not by water but by fire.

    Now it’s easy to condemn the world out there.  But we dare not think that all of this doesn’t have its effects on us, especially in our media-saturated lives.  The temptation for us as we wait is to grow weary in the struggle, to become tired of being made to feel like an outsider, and finally to just give in, to go along with the mindset of the culture, to adopt its self-indulgent way of living, to compromise your beliefs because, well, that’s what you’ve got to do to get by or to get ahead.  The daily barrage can entice us all to believe the lies, to question or even give up on God’s Word.

    And so Peter here offers us some encouragement.  He reminds us first of all that the Lord’s delay is not a sign that He’s forgotten about us or that the promise of His return is empty.  Rather, it’s a sign of His great mercy.  He is patient and longsuffering with us sinners, not wanting anyone to perish eternally.  He gives us all time to repent.  It is written that the Lord is “slow to anger.”  He’s not like us, with a short fuse when things don’t go our way.  He’s not looking for a reasnullon to let us have it, even though that’s exactly what we deserve.  Rather, He is “abounding in steadfast love,” wanting all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  So if you hear someone ridiculing a belief in the second coming, or if you find yourself beginning to question it, remember that in the Lord’s delay is His patient mercy.  The only reason the world continues on each day is because of His love for fallen human beings.

    Our Lord is longsuffering toward us because He suffered long for us.  And that suffering included being mocked and ridiculed Himself.  At Golgotha Jesus was scorned and made fun of and treated as a fool in order to deliver us from our foolishness and to vindicate us who believe in Him and to deliver us from judgment.  All of the judgment we have merited He already endured in our place on the cross.  The punishment has been meted out.  The sentence has been served.  It is finished.  And that means that the Lord can wait, and so can we.  There is no hurry.  For God’s wrath has already been appeased.  Your redemption is won in Christ through the blood that He shed. You are safe and forgiven and put right with God.  You have nothing to fear.

    And besides, what seems like a dreadfully long time to us is just a blink of an eye to the Lord.  One day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day to Him.  We must always be careful to look at things from His eternal perspective and be patient, even as He is.

    Still, there will come a point when the time of mercy, when the opportunity for repentance will end.  “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night,” suddenly and unexpectedly on the world, as did the flood.  On that last day it is written here that the whole universe will be incinerated and will pass away with a great noise, the real big bang.  The elements of this sin-cursed old creation will melt and fully degrade and expire to make way for the new creation to come.  Specifically, Peter says that the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.  All of our greatest works and achievements, all that human hands have made will be consumed–the great pyramids, skyscrapers and stadiums, computers and technological gadgets, the things and the property that we worked so hard to make payments on–all of it, evaporated, gone.

    Therefore, since that is what is going to happen, how should we be conducting ourselves?  Should we be setting our hearts on the stuff of this world, or the status and power that comes with being honored by others and not mocked by them?  Why be completely wrapped up in what doesn’t last?  This is no time for complacency and spiritual laziness.  Rather, says Peter, since the last day is fast approaching, we should be conducting ourselves in holiness and godliness and love toward others.  We should be looking for and living for the day of His return.

    The Epistle draws this all together when it says, “According to His promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”   This old cursed and deathward creation is not where it’s at.  Rather we await our bodily resurrection in that place which our Lord Jesus is preparing for us, a real, tangible world in which righteousness dwells, for He, the Righteous One is there.  No more will there be violent and stomach-turning news reports.  No more will we have to deal with our own frustrating fallen nature.  For all things will be made permanently right and good and new in that Day.  All scoffing will be done, all mockers cast out, and there will be only perfect praise and reveling in in God’s glory.

    And even now, the Scriptures say, you are already new in Christ, for you have been baptized into Him who is immortal and incorruptible.  Like Noah of old, you have been saved from judgment through water; you are safe in the ark of church, Christ’s body.  As Noah and His family and the animals entered in through the side of the ark, so also you have found refuge in the side of Christ, from which the blood and the water flowed for your cleansing and your redemption.  You are the ones the Gospel speaks of who are at the Jesus’ right hand.  To you He will say, “Come, you blessed of My Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  

    Let us then pray daily for our Lord’s return.  Let us look for His coming, especially as He comes to us hiddenly even now in the holy supper.  Our Lord says in Revelation, “Surely I am coming quickly.”  We say with all the saints who have gone before us, “Amen.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 22:20)

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

Those Who Sleep in Jesus

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year (Trinity 25)

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

    The Apostle Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep.”  In other words, Paul doesn’t want them to be unaware about what the future holds for the Christians there who have died.  The Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Christ.  These converts, who had been turned away from their pagan idols to the true and living God, were taught by Paul to wait and look for God’s Son from heaven, the second coming of Jesus to save them from the final judgment.  In fact, so great was their anticipation of the Last Day that some of these Thessalonians were even forsaking their jobs and their daily work, expecting the return of Jesus to be at any moment.  In the verses right before today’s epistle, Paul had to remind the Christians in Thessalonica, “work with your own hands, as we commanded you.”  And again, “if a man is not willing to work, neither shall he eat.”

    And along with this, another problem developed.  Some Thessalonians were unsure of what would happen to those Christians who died before the Last Day.  They saw Christ’s second coming as being right around the corner, and they wondered what would happen to their fellow believers who had passed away before that time.  Were they going to miss out on the blessings of Christ’s return if they weren’t alive in the body?  Many of that time believed that once you died, that was the end of it all for you.  And so Paul says to them, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep.”  null

    But before we consider the teaching of Paul on this subject, we must first ask ourselves, how do we compare to these Thessalonian Christians?  What can we learn from them about ourselves?  We might be tempted to scoff at them a little bit.  “Those extremists, leaving their jobs to wait for the end.  How ridiculous!”  And yet, it seems to me that we can be guilty of the opposite error.  They may have forsaken their work to focus on Christ’s second coming, but we tend to forsake Christ’s second coming to focus on our work and the things of this world.  When is the last time you thought about Jesus’ return in a serious way?  The Scriptures command us to be prepared for it, to watch for it daily.  But we tend more eagerly to watch what’s happening with our money, or to watch our favorite shows and celebrities, or to set our eyes on politics or sports–my goodness, the never-ending sports.  While the Thessalonians did indeed carry things to an extreme, the fundamental point they had right:  we are always to be watching and preparing for the return of our Lord Jesus.  As we carry out the callings that God has given us, we are to lift our eyes and await the coming of the Son of God from heaven.  For each day could indeed be the Last Day of this world.

    In the same way, we might be tempted to look down upon the Thessalonians’ lack of knowledge regarding those who have died in the faith–especially those who may have thought that you had to be alive in the body at Jesus’ return to experience His salvation.  And yet, again, we often make the opposite error.  We tend to give all our attention to the soul or the spirit while neglecting the fact that God also redeemed our bodies in Christ. We forget that the soul of a believer going to heaven is really only a temporary circumstance as we await the Last Day.  Our true and full hope regarding everlasting life is the resurrection of the body, the undoing of the curse of sin and death, the conquering of the grave.  The Word became flesh to save us in the flesh.

    Paul speaks these words of God so that we will not grieve or sorrow as those who have no hope.  Most face death without any real hope, only uncertainty.  With no sure foundation they are left only with despair as life ebbs away.  Some may try to comfort themselves with all sorts of false hopes.  Some, for instance, believe in reincarnation, that once we depart these bodies in death, we will be reborn into new bodies in this world.  But that belief in reincarnation is simply a lie and an illusion.  For it says plainly in Hebrews 9, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”  The soul is the life of a particular body, a particular flesh-and-blood person, and it cannot simply hop around from one body to the next, regardless of what you see in the movies.  Soul and body are a unit, belonging uniquely to each other.  The only thing that rips them apart is death.

    Others try to comfort themselves with the false hope that everyone goes to heaven, or to something like it, after death.  They deny the reality of hell for those who reject or ignore Christ or who keep Him at arms length and go their own way.  But the Scriptures are very clear on this.  Hell is real, and it is the destiny of every sinner who has not sought refuge in Christ, in His holy cross, in His words, His body and blood.  For only in Jesus is there deliverance from everlasting judgment.

    So it is that Paul focuses our attention squarely on Christ.  The Epistle says, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”  Our hope is built surely and solely on what Christ has done for us.  He died and rose again.  Therefore, we who have been baptized into His body also die, for the sinful nature must finally be put to death, but we too will rise again to new life through the power of Christ’s resurrection.  For Christ is the head of the body, the Church.  Where the head goes the body must follow.

    That’s why Paul refers to those Christians who have died as those who are asleep.  Believers who sleep in death will eventually awaken in the resurrection on the Last Day.  Therefore, it is quite fitting that places of burial are called “cemeteries,”  which comes from the Greek word, “to sleep.”  Early Christians would often begin their Easter services at the cemetery, the place where their fellow believers were asleep in Christ, and then process to the place of worship to celebrate the sure hope of the resurrection in Christ, the awakening to everlasting life.

    Now this sleep refers only to the body and not to the soul.  The Bible makes it very clear that the spirits of the faithful who have died go to be with Christ in heaven.  Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”  The soul does not sleep but is comforted in the presence of God as it awaits the Last Day and the fulfillment of all things.  Then at the close of the age, God will bring with Him the souls of His people to be raised from the dead in bodies that are new and immortal and imperishable.  In the resurrection, God’s people will share in the glory of Christ so that we will no longer experience sickness or sorrow or pain or death, but only the perfection of life that the Lord Jesus won for us.  It is written in 1 Corinthians, “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.’  Where, O death, is your victory; where, O grave, is your sting? . . .  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    This is why cremation is to be discouraged.  We never want to treat the body as if God is done with it, as if our only hope is for the soul, as if the resurrection of the body isn’t something real. Rather than speeding along the breakdown of the body with fire or trying to cover up and avoid the reality of a dead body, we commend the body into God’s hands, the God who conquered the power of death for us.  The same God who created us from the dust in the beginning can certainly also resurrect and recreate us from the dirt into which our casket has been planted and raise our renewed bodies to live in the awesomeness of His very presence.  Since we believe in creation, we also believe in our recreation and resurrection through Christ, who “will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.”

    It is on this basis of the certainty of the resurrection that Paul offers comfort to the Thessalonians regarding their brethren who died.  He says, “This we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.”  In other words, those Christians who are alive at Christ’s second coming will not be the first to experience the effects of His return; rather those who have gone before them in the faith will.  Departed Christians are not at a disadvantage when it comes to the Last Day, and therefore, Paul says, you need not sorrow over them as if they’ll miss out on something when Christ comes again.  First, the dead will be raised, then the living will be changed and made new, though this will all happen with instantaneous speed.  It is written in I Corinthians, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”  That is the hope which Christ has given you in the face of death.

    “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”  Some have tried to say that this refers to some sort of rapture that will occur before the Last Day, where some are caught up and others are left behind.  But that is a false teaching.  Being caught up to meet the Lord in the air is a reference to our sharing in Jesus’ victory over the devil, who Scripture refers to as the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2).   This is the visible, final return of our Lord at the close of the age, when Satan will be cast down forever and we shall bodily be raised up forever.  And we shall always be with the Lord, sharing in and reflecting God’s perfect goodness and beauty and truth, all to His glory and honor and praise.

    Until then, do not become impatient, like those who engaged in the idolatry of the golden calf.  But rather wait on the Lord Jesus and His timing.  And do not become complacent like those in the days of Noah and Lot, but rather devote yourself to the Lord’s Word and His Supper.  Comfort one another at times of death not simply with generic hopes of a better place above but with the concrete truth that the resurrection of the body is coming.  For the day is near when Jesus will be visibly revealed like the lightning that lights up the heavens, and He will bring your salvation to its fulfillment.

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

Finding a God of Mercy

Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

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

    The world of Martin Luther’s day and of our day are obviously quite different.  His was a time dominated by princes and popes and the widespread fear of purgatory when you die.  That’s why the indulgences being sold by the church were initially such a success.  People were sincerely afraid of the judgment of God.  Their worldview was very much focused on finding a way to be saved from the punishment their sins deserved.  The promise that indulgences could free people from that was an appealing solution for many.

    On the other hand, ours is a time dominated by notions of freedom and equality and the assumption that almost everyone will have a nice afterlife.  Fear of God’s judgment isn’t what drives things anymore but self-fulfillment.  The god most people conceive of today isn’t the God of the Bible, but just a sort of nice, generic, supernatural force.  And while people certainly still may not like the thought of dying, the belief at least on the surface is that unless you’re a super evil person, you’ll end up in heaven.  Isn’t it just standard conversation at a funeral to say that the deceased is in a better place?

    And so we can be tempted to think that the things that Luther and the Reformation were about–things like sin and hell and the cross and reconciliation with God–while they may have been important at one time, really are no longer things we should focus on so much.  The world has changed.  Many think that we as a church need to move on to other things and address more contemporary and relevant questions.  

    But in truth what ails the church today is that the problem Luther faced has stopped being our problem.null  Technology may have advanced, times may have changed, but fallen human nature hasn’t.  We need to learn to start asking the right questions again:  How can we be rescued from the slavery of our sins and the bondage of death and the very real judgment of God?  For Luther, the question was very personal: “How can a sinner like me be redeemed?  How can I find a God of mercy?” 

    Don’t be drawn away by the self-absorbed God questions of our age: How can I find a God who can make my life better?  How can God give me a life of purpose?  How can I be happy and fulfilled?  Do you notice in those questions, God is just a means to an end, just a way of getting where I want to be.  But God is never merely a means to an end.  God is the end; He’s the goal we seek, the God of mercy.  Our desire is to be with this God.  That’s what heaven is.  He is Himself the fullness of the life that we’re looking for.  Part of the problem, then, is that we’ve stopped asking the right questions.  As one theologian put it, God’s Word isn’t about meeting our needs, it’s about giving us needs worth having.

    Here’s the diagnosis of your need from God’s Word; from the Epistle:  “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  Since God’s Law declares all to be guilty and condemned before Him, your greatest need is to escape that and be delivered from that.  And the Law itself can’t help you.  All the Law can do is point the finger at you and tell you to shut your trap.  You’ve got nothing you can say in your own defense–no excuses, no justifications, no “but I did the best I could.”  Just zip it, the Law says.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  There’s nothing you can say to help.  

    In Luther’s day, the typical way to try to escape God’s wrath was through human effort, things like his duties as a monk, his life of self-denial, his attempts to list and repent of every sin in confession and do proper penance–but none of that satisfied him or gave him peace.  For Luther had been given a gift by God: the gift of a tender and strong conscience.  Today, we might call that a curse.  The key to success in this world, and even sometimes in church hierarchy, is compromise.  But with each compromise, the conscience is deadened a little, and God’s Word is set aside a little more.  With each compromise you and I make, we have to tell ourselves, “The warnings of God’s Word don’t really apply to me.”  Deluding ourselves that it is for a greater good, it is easy to set aside what we have learned from Scripture until it no longer bothers us at all.  But Luther’s conscience wouldn’t let him stop being bothered.  And that was actually good.  For as Hebrews 12 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”  These things are not trifling matters.  The fact that we do not tremble more often at God’s Word is a sign of how we have compromised our own consciences, how much we have taken God’s Word of Law and Gospel for granted.

    What made the Reformation finally occur was when the pure light of the life-giving Gospel shone through clearly and began to lift the burden of the Law from Luther.  That didn’t happen through some mystical experience or an emotional conversion or a commitment to obedience, but through a rediscovery of the Scriptural teaching about God’s righteousness.  And here’s what that teaching is:  what God demands in the Law under threat of punishment, He gives by pure grace in the Gospel, as a gift.  In the Law, God condemns our unrighteousness, but in the Gospel, God freely gives us His own righteousness.  It is written in Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” In other words, the Gospel makes known the righteousness of God, not as demands on you but as a gift to you.  God isn’t saying, “See how righteous I am; now you better measure up,” but rather, “Here, take my righteousness, wear it as your own; it’s yours.”  In His Word God reveals and gives you His righteousness, so that through faith in the Gospel, you are 100% holy and guiltless in His sight.  These words of Scripture revealed the answer to Luther’s terrifying question: “How can I find a God of mercy?”  It’s all there and given to you in Jesus, God’s mercy in the flesh. 

    St. Paul writes in the Epistle, Since, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Pay close attention to those words.  You are justified freely by His grace, without any strings attached.  That’s what grace is, an undeserved gift of love.  You don’t have to justify yourself, look for loopholes, prove yourself, build yourself up by what you do; God Himself justifies you, He declares you righteous, He puts you right with Himself solely and completely based on the works of Christ Jesus His Son.

    And here in particular is what Christ has done for you: the Epistle says that the Lord Jesus redeemed you.  He bought you back out of your slavery to sin and Satan and the grave.  He purchased you with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He traded places with you and allowed Himself to be enslaved, captured and condemned as if He were the sinner, guilty of every wrong that’s ever been done and every failure to do what’s right.  He took your place in the chains of death to set you free, so that you would take His place in everlasting life.  Through His sacred death, Jesus broke your bonds and conquered your slave masters so that they have no eternal power over you any more.  In the Son of God you are truly free–released, forgiven, alive.  Jesus Himself said, “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”

    That merciful release and freedom given only in Christ is what Luther needed, what we need, and what every age needs.  It doesn’t change with the times; it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle ages or this postmodern age, this unchanging truth remains:  God’s wrath against sinners has been completely turned away through the cross.  This He did for you.  God doesn’t hate you, He loves you in Jesus.  He has chosen you as His own and brought you out of darkness, so that you may live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  You are no longer slaves, you are beloved children in the household of God.  That’s the good news of the Gospel of Jesus.

    So if we really want things to be put right again, with ourselves and with the church, and be renewed in our Christian faith, then let us always keep the Reformation question central to our own theology and belief: “How can I find a God of mercy?”  And hearing the answer in God’s Word, that we are justified and declared righteous “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” alone, given by grace alone in preaching and the Sacraments, received through faith alone, then we will be on the right track.  Then we will be freed to do truly good works–works performed not out of fear of punishment or to acquire our own salvation, but works performed in the sure confidence that we’re already saved in Christ, works done for the good of our neighbor as we live out the callings God has given us in the home and work and state and church.  This is the Scriptural, Reformation flow of good works–not us to God, but God to us and then through us in love to the world. 

    One final thought: The Epistle reading said that boasting is excluded.  That is important for us to remember at a Reformation celebration.  It’s not just that we shouldn’t boast in our own good works (since it’s all from God), it’s also that we shouldn’t boast in our Lutheranism for its own sake in some sort of puffed up and self-righteous way.  For then we’re denying our own confession of faith.  We aren’t justified by being Lutheran.  Martin Luther of course can save no one.  We are justified by the holy cross, by faith in Christ alone–and even that faith is a gift of the Gospel.  That’s where the focus must stay, always on Jesus and His Word.  As it is written, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”  For the Lord Himself says, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

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

(With thanks to Herman Sasse and his work, “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” Part 2, The Lonely Way, and the Revs. William Willimon and Christopher Esget)

To God the Things that are God's

  • Matthew 22:15-22
  • Trinity 23

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

    When we hear today’s Gospel reading, there is a strong temptation for us to interpret it in American political terms.  The statement “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” we take to mean little more than “the separation of church and state” or something along those lines.   You’ve got your church life here, and you’ve got your secular life and political life over there.  Take care of your responsibilities in each, but keep them separate.

    But that’s not what Jesus is saying here.  He’s not simply reducing himself to the role of Thomas Jefferson.  And he’s certainly not saying that your Christian faith should only be applied to a couple narrow areas of your life and be kept out of the other stuff.  In fact that’s actually the opposite of his point.null

    Now to be sure, there are distinctions to be made between church and state.  In the church God rules primarily by means of the Gospel, bestowing mercy and forgiveness on repentant sinners.  For such there is no coercion, just grace.  But in the state God rules primarily by means of the Law; which means that when the government is doing its job properly, it’s about punishing bad behavior and rewarding and protecting good behavior.  The government by its very nature operates by threat and coercion, by force.  Step outside the boundaries of the Law and face the consequences; stay within the boundaries of the Law and reap the benefit.  This is as God intends.  Romans 13 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. . . Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”  God gives government and rulers the authority to use force, to punish, and to reward.  They are ministers of God’s left hand kingdom of the Law for your good, to maintain order.

    Of course, the problem occurs when sinful rulers are no longer a threat to wrongdoers but to those who are doing good.  In our country, the abortion industry is not only protected by the government, it’s even funded by the government.  Planned Parenthood, which performs over 330,000 abortions in this country every year, receives about $550 million dollars a year from the federal government and what we pay in taxes.  All tolled, the government and the civil law is complicit in the deaths of over 1 million unborn children in this country annually; that’s over 3000 every day.  Politicians who say, “I’m personally against abortion, but I don’t think I should force my moral views on others” are gravely mistaken and self-deceived.  Just apply that thinking to the topic of child abuse, and you’ll realize how ridiculous and foolish that supposed justification is.  I’m personally against child abuse, but I don’t think I should force my moral views on others.”  What do they think abortion is?  This bizarre separation of church and life is certainly not what Jesus is talking about here.

    In addition, the government also now protects and promotes a fundamentally corrupted understanding of marriage.  And the days are drawing nearer when those who simply speak out in favor of God-given natural marriage only between a man and a woman are going to be seen as criminally guilty of hate speech.  Christian business owners who decline to take part in providing services for same-sex ceremonies are already being are already being sued and driven out of business, very often with the blessing or assistance of local authorities.  Such actions by governments are certainly not to be seen as God’s will or the God-given role of the state.  In our democratic republic, it is certainly right and appropriate for us in these instances to resist the authorities and to work to change the laws as well as the hearts of people toward what is good and right.  And if the government ever attempts to require us to sin, then we say along with St. Peter in Acts 5, “We must obey God rather than men.”

  null  But having said all this, Jesus’ point in the Gospel actually isn’t focused primarily on civil government, but on something much more.  Those who were trying to entangle Jesus in his talk were mostly concerned with political things.  Were you backing the right people and favoring the right policies?  That’s what they were getting all worked up about.  But Jesus wasn’t fitting very well into the agenda of either side, and so since He wasn’t useful to their cause, they wanted to get rid of Him–and that included both the religiously conservative Pharisees who hated living under Roman rule, and the secular elite and powerful Herodians, who were in league with the Roman empire.  They had common cause here in trying to trip Jesus up.  No matter how Jesus answered the question about paying taxes, they thought they’d have Him trapped.  If He supported paying taxes to the Romans, he’d lose popularity with the people who were oppressed under Roman rule.  If He didn’t think it was right to pay taxes, then He could be accused of treason and rebellion.  But Jesus, Wisdom in the flesh, rises above their political arguments and says, “Whose image and inscription is on the money.  Caesar’s?  Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they were silenced.  All they could do was marvel and go their way.  

    But note how Jesus not only shut them down, but also how He changed the subject.  With His response, it was as if He was saying, “You are all caught up in the things of this world and the power of people who are nothing but dust.  If part of Caesar’s passing glory is to have his image and inscription on money, and he wants you to pay taxes with it, do it.  Don’t give that money and that mammon more importance than it deserves.  The stuff of Caesar is temporary; the things of God are eternal.  Turn your attention to that.  Render to God the things that are God’s.”  The real emphasis for Jesus is not on the first half of the phrase but that second half.

    “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”  Well, if you think about it, 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 can tell yourself that you’ve done your duty.  And then you can 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?  He’s 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 are and to manage that in a way that is pleasing to Him.  That may well start here with the 10% that you are given to put in the offering plate to support the mission of the church, but it’s about much more than just money.  It continues with the other 90% and your very lives that you are given to manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.

    Remember, it’s all about the image and the inscription.  The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar.  And what bears God’s image?  You do.  You are created 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 the invisible God Himself according to Colossians 1.  The image of God in us was broken through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just 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 with gold or silver but with His holy, precious 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.”  There is Jesus on His throne for you.

    When it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short in making up for your sin, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins.  So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s 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 alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.”  To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.

    In baptism, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name.  Your image was tarnished and corrupted, but Jesus stamped the sign of the cross on you and joined you to Himself.  In Jesus the very image of God is restored to your humanity.  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 as living sacrifices by the mercies of God in loving our neighbor.

    For as St. Paul said in the Epistle, our citizenship is in heaven, in Christ.  We are like foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life or as if everything depends on who wins elections, as important as they are.    You are citizens of this country 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. 

    Hear the wisdom of the Psalmist, “Put not your trust in princes and rulers, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation.  When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.  Blessed, is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them.”  When everything seems to be coming apart in the world around us, it is good to meditate on the words of Psalm 11, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?  The Lord is in His holy temple.  The Lord’s throne is in heaven.”  Christ remains the King of kings and the Lord over all authority forever.

    Here, then, is our sure and certain hope and our heart’s desire: (Phil. 3) “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.”  These lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious metamorphosis at Jesus’ return, so that they will be like His glorious body after His resurrection from the dead.  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.  You will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    So render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, taking care of those necessary duties in a fallen world.  But above all, render unto God the things that are God’s, honoring and trusting in Him above all things.  “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.”  Here is where you are given to participate already in the life of God’s eternal kingdom.  Here is where you not only kneel before your King, but calling on His name, you receive His very body and blood into your bodies for the forgiveness of all your sins.  And “whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).

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

Real Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35
Trinity 22

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

    All too often we treat the topic of forgiveness in the same shallow way as we treat a blessing after a sneeze.  “Bless you,” we say.  But we’re not really offering a blessing from God; we’re just being polite and doing the customary thing.  So also with forgiveness.  It’s often more a matter of manners than the real, substantial  act of forgiving them and the attitude of the heart that goes along with it.  

    Have you ever noticed how people often respond when someone says, “I’m sorry”?  Usually it’s not “I forgive you.”  It’s “Oh, don’t worry about it.  No big deal.  No harm done.”  But that’s not forgiveness; that’s just an acknowledgment that you don’t think it’s that bad. It didn’t do any permanent damage. We can forget about it.  Too many wrongly think that’s forgiveness.  When something is genuinely truly bad in our estimation, that’s when we start thinking about certain things being unforgivable.  But the truth of the matter is that you can only call yourself forgiving if you forgive things that genuinely hurt you.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.null

    It’s sort of like tolerance.  I’ve talked about this before.  Lots of people like to think of themselves as tolerant nowadays.  “Oh, I’m not bigoted against other religions or gay people or female clergy like some people I know.  I’m tolerant!”  But they don’t really think there’s anything particularly wrong with those groups in the first place.  So that’s not tolerance at all.  You can only tolerate something which you find to be wrong or distasteful or with which you disagree.

    In the same way, if you forgive something you don’t really care about, that’s no real virtue.  It’s one thing to forgive and let go of someone’s failure to show up precisely on time for an appointment.  It’s quite another thing to forgive and let go of things that others have done which you find to be detestable–betrayal, sexual molestation, alcoholism, abuse, criminal behavior, abortion.  The only things that you can forgive are things you consider to be real, actual sins.  

    I bring all this up because in today’s Gospel, it can be easy for us to minimize the debt that the second servant owed the first servant, the 100 denarii.  We say, “Well of course the man should have forgiven his fellow servant!  That was such a small debt compared to what he had just been forgiven.”  But it was still 100 days’ worth of wages.  That’s what a denarius is, a full day’s wage.  It doesn’t do us any good to ignore the depth of the debt, to deny the gravity of the sins against us that we or others have suffered.  To be sure, it’s not right to hold on to those sins; but neither is it right to pretend like they’re nothing either.  They can create very real bitterness and anger and resentment and fear.  In fallen creatures like us, they can produce in us the very real desire to grab our neighbor by the throat and say, “Pay me what you owe!  An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!  I want payback, now!”

    Sins have been committed against us which have genuinely hurt us.  But if that is so, think how much more we have committed sins which have genuinely caused pain to our God.  If the wrongs we’ve endured are only 100 denarii, imagine how deep our debt toward God is, our countless rebellions and idolatries, which are described as 10,000 talents!  Just a single talent, just one is the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, more than 16 years worth of wages–and that’s just one talent!  10,000 talents, in other words, is a way of describing a debt that is incalculable, unpayable.  For my part, at least, that means I don’t fully grasp the gravity of my own sin.  And you don’t fully grasp the gravity of your sin.  That’s how sin works.  It blinds us to the utter severity of our own condition.  We are all in the most desperate need of forgiveness from God.

    And that’s where it all must begin.  Without a humble stance as beggars before God, we will never be able to act with lowliness and gentleness toward our neighbor and forgive him.  We must all come before our God and King and acknowledge that even if He gave us 100 years, we couldn’t even begin to make a dent in our debt.  In fact all our attempts would only dig that hole deeper.  We are bankrupt; we are utterly dependent on His mercy to forgive us, or we are lost forever.

    All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God has taken pity on us and canceled our debt.  He didn’t just reduce what we owed and put us on an interest-free payment plan.  No, the debt is completely erased.  It’s gone.  You are debt free.  

    Now understand, the debt still had to be paid; just not by you.  The sin-debt is very real; and so the payment also must be very real.  Forgiveness isn’t easy.  Someone had to absorb the debt.  And that person is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.  God the Son became a human being in order to pay what we humans owed.  But since He is also God, the payment He earned was infinite, even as God Himself is infinite.  Jesus took on Himself your debt, your sins, and they were crucified with Him.  By dying in your place, Jesus settled your account with God forever–not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  And by rising again to life, He earned eternal life for you and restored your relationship with the heavenly Father.  All this He has done without any merit or worthiness in you but only because of His fatherly, divine, goodness and mercy.  You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God.  Forgiveness has overflown to you.  Like the servant, you’ve been given a new life, a new start.

    Since that is true, since God has answered for all sin at Calvary, since it’s all covered by Jesus’ blood, who are we to act otherwise?  Who are we to hold onto what God has let go of and dealt with and done away with, whether it’s our own sin or somebody else’s?

    The first servant in the Gospel failed to understand this.  He didn’t seem to see the connection between how his debt had been forgiven by the mercy of the king, and how therefore he was also to be forgiving toward others.  How could the servant behave so strangely the way he did?  Perhaps it was just that he was completely selfish and self-absorbed.  Or perhaps it was because he didn’t really trust that the debt was truly forgiven.  Still in the back of his mind he was thinking, “This can’t actually be true.  Sooner or later, the king’s going to be coming for me, and I better build up as much in the way of assets as I possibly can, so that maybe I’ll have a little bargaining power.”  Do you see?  If the servant truly believed that the debt was forgiven, he would have been like a renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, a new man, giving away and passing on with cheer the same compassion he himself had received.  Instead he didn’t believe it; he didn’t walk by faith.  And so he put himself outside the king’s mercy by his actions and ended up suffering the king’s judgment.  

    To forgive is to believe that Jesus really did atone for all sin and pay all debts.  Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I just can’t forgive myself.”  It seems to me that what they’re really saying is, “I can’t believe that God could ever forgive me.  What I did is so bad. I should be punished or have to make up for it somehow.”  And so they still end up living according to the law of retribution, toward themselves and toward others.  But God has truly forgiven you, of everything–and not only what you’ve done, but also the sin that has been done to you.  He bore your abuse and your humiliation, too, and whatever pollutions you’ve had to endure.  All of that He took away from you; all of that He put to death on the cross.  You are clean again.  You are righteous. To forgive is not to condone the wrongdoing; it’s not to deny the pain caused or the damage done.  Rather, it’s to acknowledge it for all that it is, and to place the matter in God’s hands, the hands that were stretched out in death to take away the power of sin.  Because of that you are now freed to forgive others in the seventy times seven way of the Gospel–not by your own power but by the power and mercy of Christ.

    Just as God has forgiven the whole world through Christ, even those who won’t repent and believe and be saved, so also in Christ we forgive even those who won’t say they’re sorry or be reconciled to us.  Forgiveness is not dependent on the repentance of the person who committed the sin but on the actions and the attitude of the one who was sinned against.  You can forgive someone even if the other person hasn’t changed.  Isn’t that how it is with God?  God has forgiven the whole world’s sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s all covered.  People may still reject that and refuse to believe that and live outside of that forgiveness; but that’s on them.  If they are eternally condemned, it’s because of their own unbelief.  But what we are given to do is to stand with Christ and offer His mercy.  No sin is greater than God’s forgiveness; and it is by His forgiveness that we forgive others.  When someone does us harm, we remember, “Jesus paid for that sin, too. And if He paid for their sin, it’s no use for me to behave as if He didn’t.”

    So in your marriages and in your families and with your friends, get in the habit first of all of saying “I’m sorry.”  Don’t justify or excuse what you’ve done.  Be willing to open yourself up to the truth of what you’ve done or failed to do.  And then even more importantly, get in the habit of explicitly saying to the other, “I forgive you.”  “I’m not going to hold this over you.”  There’s vulnerability there also, on both sides of the equation.  But only in this way is there genuine and lasting reconciliation.  

    Real forgiveness will always be hard.  But all the truly hard stuff was done by Jesus, all sins done to death in His body–atoned for, punished, taken away, released and gone.  Period.  So when you find it difficult to forgive, or when you find yourself feeling unforgiving again towards a person you’ve once forgiven, the way to deal with that is to return to the cross.  You can’t forgive someone from your heart when your heart is empty.  Fill it with the merciful, debt-releasing words of Christ in Scripture.  Fill it with the sanctifying flood that flows to you from your Baptism into Christ the crucified.  And be filled once again with Jesus’ body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness and cleansing of all sins.

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

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