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Your Redemption Draws Near

Advent 2
Luke 21:25-36

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

There is a great difference between Jesus’ first coming and His second coming.  In His first coming Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, noticed almost by no one.  In His second coming He will be clothed with light, and every eye will see Him.  In His first coming Jesus rode into Jerusalem in lowliness on a donkey.  In His second coming He will ride on the clouds with power and great glory.  In His first coming Jesus bore the cross, despised and forsaken.  In His second coming, the risen Lord will be accompanied by hosts of angels, and to Him every knee shall bow.

It is important for us during this Advent tide, then, to focus our attention on both of these advents of our Lord–His coming at Christmas, and His coming again on the Last Day.  You don’t get one without the other.  The baby in the manger and the Judge of the living and the dead are one and the same.  First Jesus comes to win our salvation.  Then He comes again to bring us our salvation in all its fullness.  Not only do we look back in faith to what Christ has done, we also look forward in hope to what Christ will yet do.  St. Paul reminded us last week, “Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”  The Savior is coming!

So what if I were to tell you that Jesus is going to return some time before the end of 2019?  How would you respond to that?  Well, first of all I hope that you’d immediately identify me as a false prophet, since the Scriptures make clear that no one knows the day or the hour of Jesus’ return.  But still, it is quite possible that Jesus’ return will be this calendar year, isn’t it?  The signs are fulfilled.  The Last Day could be today for all we know.  

So the question is: does that fact bring to you a sense of joy or a sense of dread?  There’s really no middle ground on this, is there?    Either Jesus is returning to this world as Judge to condemn and punish you, or He’s returning to this world as Savior to deliver you into everlasting life.  His coming will either be a source of great happiness and relief or great terror and despair.

If the Last Day and the return of Jesus is not something you’re eager for, why is that?  Is it that you fear facing God because of your sin, especially those sins that you struggle to let go of?  Then repent and believe the Gospel that Jesus has already taken those sins from you.  He answered for them all at His first coming.  Hold on to Him, not your guilt.  To those who believe, Jesus comes not as an enemy but as a Redeemer and a Friend.  

Or is there another reason why you’re not so eager for the second coming?  Is it that you’ve got so many attachments to this world, so many plans and dreams for your life, that the return of Christ would actually throw a monkey wrench into it all?  It’s precisely because we so often get our priorities turned upside down that Jesus reminds us today: Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with partying and good times and all the cares of this life.  For indeed that Day “will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth.”  Beware of becoming so at home in this fallen world that you lose your desire to escape it and be free of its empty glories.  “The heavens and the earth will pass away.”

And let me point out that this has direct implications for how we raise our kids and what we seek to teach our grandkids, doesn’t it.  If you knew the return of Jesus were happening soon, would you treat your spiritual responsibilities toward them a little differently?  Would all the games and the extracurricular stuff not be so central, and would the things of God be the main priority?  And if so, shouldn’t that be the attitude you actually take then, since Jesus’ return really could be at any moment?  Christians live day by day in the joyous hope of Jesus’ coming, desiring His return and desiring to order our lives in a way that reflects that.  

There is a time when time will come to an end.  That’s why it’s important to note how Jesus speaks in the Gospel about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars.  For these heavenly bodies are the markers of time.  Scripture says that they were appointed for signs and seasons, for days and years. They found one of their greatest fulfillments, one of their greatest markings of time, in drawing the wise men from Babylon to Bethlehem to worship the Virgin’s Son, Jesus.

The heavenly bodies are counting down to the end of time, and eventually they themselves will pass away.  Every sunset is a reminder of our impending death.  Every sunrise, though, is a promise of the resurrection to come on the Last Day. The movement of the sun and moon and the stars are predictable. So also is the return of the King–not that we can know the exact time of His return.  But we can predict with absolute certainty that, as sure as there are stars in the sky, Jesus is coming back.  Every moment He is postponed the tension grows greater.  Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

Look and see if there is unusual solar or astronomical phenomena.  Look and see if nations are distressed with perplexity and political upheaval, if the sea and the waves are still roaring and there is unusual weather and natural disasters, men’s hearts failing them from fear of what is happening.  Know then that the Day is surely drawing near.  Time will come to an end.  It will not continue forever.  The Son of Man will come in a cloud with power and great glory.  Watch therefore, and pray so that the Day will not ensnare you.

We prayed in the Collect: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord.”  That is a dangerous prayer to pray.  For we are not praying: “Lord, give us a warm, fuzzy feeling in our chests, make our lives comfortable and leisurely, make us popular with our friends.”  No, to pray that God would stir up our hearts is to ask that He would shake things up in us, that He would awaken repentance in us and renew our faith and prod us into action. “Stir up our hearts” is a plea for God to end our complacency, overcome our laziness, and stop our self-absorbed melancholy. We ask Him to intervene for us against one of our wiliest foes, ourselves, and on the most dangerous battlefield of all, our hearts.

For while the Bridegroom delays, the dangers increase. We must continue to endure temptation.  Salvation is closer now then when we first believed.  But do we have the same zeal we had then to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Savior?  It is easy to grow weary and to be seduced by the devil’s promise of rest.  “Why fight it? Why work so hard? Why care so much about what God says when it doesn’t seem to help?”  The devils advises you: “Take care of yourself.  Don’t offend anyone, and lay up for yourself treasures where you can see and enjoy them.”

But that is most certainly the way of death.  And so we pray, “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, against the devil and our old nature!  Make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.”  Man does not live by mammon and worldly praise.  The Baptized live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  All other things will fade away.  But the Word of God will never pass away.  It never lies, never changes, never fails.

On the great and dreadful day of the Lord’s return, Muslims, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, the “spiritual but not religious,” and all those good people who thought they could come to God apart from the grace of Christ alone will no longer be able to deny His power and authority. Satan’s many masks and false names will finally be stripped away.  Then the pagans and the agnostics and the spiritually self-sufficient will know the dark lord whom they’ve been worshiping all these years, and they shall be burned up in God’s wrath.  But to you who honor the Name of the Lord, who trust in the mercy of the God born of Mary, He, the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings.  Look up.  Lift up your heads.  Your redemption draws near.  Your suffering, your trials, your troubles are at their end.

The decisive battle for your soul was fought outside Jerusalem, where there was another great sign in the heavens.  The sun was darkened in the middle of the day for three full hours as all the blackness of sin’s judgment descended upon Christ.  He bore that for you to set you free.  That’s why the Last day is not a day to fear.  Judgment day already occurred for you on Good Friday.  The last day for you is redemption day!  For it is your Redeemer who is close at hand.  The Father has given you a full pardon through the death of His innocent Son. The Spirit of Life and Resurrection now abides in you.

It is a dangerous business living in this fallen world. But the end is certain for those who belong to Jesus.  Fear not. Do not be afraid.  The Savior has not died in vain.  The devil is a liar, already defeated.  Jesus died and rose again for our salvation.  He reconciled all mankind to His Father, and the kingdom of heaven is open to all believers.  Blessed are all those who trust in Him, who rest in Him, who confess Him.  You will not be disappointed.

So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you right now, the holy Sacrament of the Altar.  To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important.  But to you who believe, it is a marvelous sign.  For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly to deliver you.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

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

(With thanks to David Petersen for some material in the latter half of this sermon.)

Behold, Your King is Coming to You

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Zechariah 9:9
Advent 1

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

    A lot of you have friends and neighbors and co-workers who are agnostics.  The word agnostic literally means “not to know.”  They're not atheists; they just don’t know for sure what to believe when it comes to God and spiritual things or whether or not they will have eternal life.  They’re undecided, open to considering various positions, but they don’t fully embrace or practice any particular belief.  They see all the hundreds of religions in the world and say, “How do I know for sure which one is right?”  Usually such people will end up concluding one of two things: They’ll say either that no religion is right; they’re all just myths made up to deal with life and maybe even to control people.  Others, however, will conclude that all religions are right; they all contain the truth and are just expressing themselves in different ways.  

    C.S. Lewis once addressed something like this by using the example of a hallway in a house that led to many different rooms. You don’t live in the hallway, he said.  You can wait in the hallway, but you need to enter a particular room to live your life.  Agnostics are those who try to live in the hallway.  They can’t decide which religion, which room is the right one to enter.  Persisting in that, though, is little more than laziness of the soul.  Saying that you’re spiritual but not religious, staying in the hallway doesn’t take much effort.  And besides, no one who has ever actually taken the time to look at the claims of Christianity and those of other religions could ever conclude that all religions are basically the same.

    What do we say to those with an agnostic perspective on life?   To start with, it’s helpful for us to understand why there are so many religions in the world in the first place.  The reason is that all people know by nature that God exists and that He is to be worshiped.  It is written in Romans 1 that God’s existence is evident and known in what He has made.  We have a built-in instinct about this that must be suppressed if one is to be non-religious.  The Scriptures also say that the working of God’s law is written on man’s heart; in other words, everyone is created with a conscience, which tells us that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that we’re accountable for that.

    The problem is that our knowledge of God has been thoroughly corrupted by sin.  It is darkened and twisted and broken.  Therefore, human beings at various times and in various places have created false religions based on faulty knowledge of God and His will.  In ignorance and foolishness they have made up gods that really are more a reflection of themselves, a god made in man’s image, just a higher version of themselves.  Or instead of worshiping the Creator, they have worshiped the creation through idolatry or through giving homage to the supposed “spirits” of the trees or of animals or of their ancestors.

    One helpful way to get at the truth, which religion is the right one, is to ask which religion is fundamentally different from the others.  If there are a bunch that are more or less the same but one that is unique at its core, that is likely the one that is true.  Christianity is that one; for if you take all the beliefs and all the spiritualities out there and boil them down to their basic elements, you’ll find that there are really only two religions: the religion of the Law and the religion of the Gospel.

    The religion of the Law states that you must in some way reconcile yourself to God or find God by what you do.  In order to make contact with God you must discover Him with the wisdom of your mind or experience Him with the feelings of your heart or make yourself acceptable to Him with the work of your hands.  Once you’ve done that, then you supposedly enter into a connection with Him.  The religion of the Law is focused on man and his goodness and what he does to bring himself to God.  All false religions, from Islam to Judaism to Hinduism to the tribal spiritualities, are really only different versions of this single religion.

    The religion of the Gospel, on the other hand, states that you are not able to find God or to reconcile yourself to Him by anything that you do.  Instead, the religion of the Gospel proclaims that you are reconciled to God entirely through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus on the cross.  Christ found you, He came into contact with you by sharing fully in your human life, and He did everything that was necessary to save you by taking your judgment on Himself.  You are redeemed by His good works, His wisdom, His love–not because you have deserved it but because He is merciful and compassionate toward you.  Trusting in Christ alone, you are put right with God.  The religion of the Gospel is focused on the goodness of God and what He does to bring Himself to you to rescue and restore you.

    The religion of the Law fails because it presents the delusion that spirituality is all about you coming to God, whether it’s with your head or your heart or your hands.  Your own intelligence and thinking can’t do it, for it is written, “How unsearchable are (God’s) judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).  “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14).  Your own morality and good living can’t do it, for it is written in James 2, “Whoever keeps the whole Law, yet fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” And you can’t find God through your feelings and experiences, either.  For your emotions are changing and uncertain, and your experiences can be misleading and deceiving.  Jesus said the wise man builds his house on the rock, not on such shifting sands.  And it is written that we walk by faith and not by sight or experience.  (II Corinthians 5:7)

    And so that’s why the new church year begins with the good news that the true God comes to you in the person of Jesus Christ.  That is the glad announcement of Advent.  “Behold, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and having salvation.”

    Our God and Savior Jesus came into full contact with us in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary.  For there He took on our humanity, our skin and bones, body and soul.  He came to us and literally became one of us in order that He might unite us with Himself and make us holy.  We didn’t find God, He found us in the infant in the manger.  He entered into our earthly lives in order that we might enter with Him into His heavenly life.null

    And He did this in utter humility.  In the Gospel, when Jesus enters into capital city of Jerusalem, He comes on a donkey colt.  Even today’s politicians who are trying to identify with the common man still do it in such a way that exalts themselves, that makes them seem especially smart or cool or strong.  Their attempts at humility are usually not so subtle attempts to glorify themselves.  But not so with Jesus.  He comes not in the way of the kings of His day, with impressive legions of troops and glistening armor and a strong display of a force to be reckoned with.  He comes in lowliness and meekness, on a borrowed animal.  For He rides into Jerusalem not to receive honor for Himself but to give honor to us by His holy suffering and death.  He comes to pour out His life for us so that we might get our life back.

    That is why Christ rides not an animal of war like a horse, but an animal of peace.  He comes to bring peace between you and God.  Just as Jesus rides on a beast of burden, so He comes to bear the burden of the sin of the whole world.  He carries that load to the cross where it is put to death in His body.  This King’s glory is not to wear a crown of gold but a crown of thorns.  For by His blood and sweat and agony, Jesus takes away the sin that once separated you from God.  By His atoning sacrifice, you are reconciled to the heavenly Father.  Through Jesus peace with God is restored, the peace of sins forgiven, the calm certainty that you are held within the Father’s love.  That’s why Christ is called in Jeremiah “The Lord our Righteousness.”  For by His life and death and resurrection, He has become for you what you could not become yourselves.  In Him you are declared righteous; in Him you are put right with our Father in heaven.  There is no other God, there is no other religion like this, faith in a God of pure grace.

    And just as Jesus came in meekness and humility in the past, so also He continues to come without pretense or fanfare even now.  He is still meekly and humbly riding to you on the common baptismal waters, on the preached words of the Gospel, on the bread and wine of the Sacrament. Especially in Holy Communion, Jesus is carried along in lowly state, and He Himself brings to you His own precious body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  It is in the Lord’s Supper that the words of Scripture become very concrete: “Behold, your King is coming to you; He is righteous and having salvation.”  And so we join in with the people who sang to our Lord on the road outside Jerusalem, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!”  Believe that Jesus enters into this place just as literally as He entered into Jerusalem.  Receive your King who comes to you in love.

    For the time is fast approaching when Jesus will no longer come in humility but in all His  strength and majesty on the Last Day.  He who rode on a lowly donkey will ride on clouds of light with power and great glory.  He who was judged a criminal will come in judgment as Lord.  He who taught with gentle persuasion about the kingdom of heaven will powerfully reveal those who received His teaching in simple faith and those who rejected it in unbelief, those who are given to share in the Kingdom and those who are cursed and cast out from it forever.

    So let us set aside any residual agnosticism that remains in our hearts, let us get out of the hallway, and let us pin our hopes entirely on the One riding on the donkey and live in Him, the One who comes to us to rescue us.  God grant you penitent and believing hearts to receive this Jesus.  For behold, your King is coming to you.

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

Bless the Lord, O My Soul

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

    Psalm 103 prays, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits." To bless the Lord here means to thank Him.  We are gathered now on this holiday precisely for that purpose, that we might remember and give thanks to the Lord for all the benefits He has bestowed on us.

    For we know all too well how prone we are to forget the Lord and His blessings. We forget because we’re all wrapped up in our own little worlds. We forget because we're tempted to think that it's to our own credit that we've gotten where we are in life.  It is as Moses warned Israel, "Beware, lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth." Then Moses counsels us, "When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you." Don't be so wrapped up in the things of creation that you forget your Creator. Honor Him as the Source of all that is good.  

    Romans 1 describes ingratitude as one of the key characteristics of unbelief.  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  And Martin Luther famously and prophetically warned the Germans of his day what would happen for lack of thanksgiving, something which we in this nation should also take to heart: “Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today. . . If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague. . .  Make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Muslim Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast.”null

    “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” First of all, forget not the daily bread God provides you, the material gifts which He has granted you. In the Small Catechism we confess that "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."
We might include in that list a number of things we too often take for granted like indoor plumbing and plug-in electricity and computers and antibiotics and fresh produce throughout the winter months.  All of that and more is a gift from the Lord.

    God has given you all that you are and all that you have. You may have worked for some or even most of it, but who gave you the ability to work? Who gave you your ability to think and speak and see and hear? Who continues to sustain your bodies and sustain this nation in such a way that you can enjoy these created blessings? It is not mother nature; it is Father God, who together with the Son and the Holy Spirit is the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity. God does all of this for you–not because you've earned it or deserved it, but simply because He is good and merciful. He is your Father, a God of love who revels in giving you His good gifts.

    Again, we confess in the Catechism, "God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people. But we pray . . . that God would lead us to realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving." God doesn't ask us to pray for daily bread as a condition of our receiving it, and if we don’t ask nicely, He’s not going to provide.  No, God asks us to pray for daily bread so that we'll be reminded where it comes from; to Him is due all the credit and praise.  But God even sustains and cares for those who don't recognize Him as the Giver. That's because God is so good, He even provides for the needs of those who reject Him, that seeing His kindness they might come to repent and believe and be saved.

    But then the question arises: What about when it seems that God's kindness has been taken from us and the provision of daily bread seems to be failing? What about when wars or famines occur or the economy and our financial situation doesn't look so good? What about when the vision and the hearing fail and the health deteriorates? What about when people turn against us? Do we still have anything to give thanks for? Can we still say, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits"? The answer is: Absolutely, yes!

    To be sure, in this fallen world we are bound to experience troubles of various sorts. Temporal blessings are just that, temporary. Sin ruins everything in the end, from international relations right down to our very bodies. Through these things God seeks to humble us and turn us back to Himself.  The fact that God restrains the effects of evil as much as He does in this world and protects us and allows us to enjoy anything is a sign of His mercy.

    But the greatest and truest sign of God's kindness toward us, the greatest benefit for which we give thanks to the Lord, is that He has granted us every eternal blessing in His Son, Jesus Christ. Sin may eventually ruin everything in this world. But our Lord conquered sin in His death on the cross, and through His resurrection He has made all things new. Jesus has redeemed this fallen creation from the curse by bearing the curse in His body. He broke the curse on Good Friday and set us free to live in a never-ending Easter of life and immortality.

    In Jesus we have not only daily bread, but the Living Bread from heaven, His life-giving flesh and blood which He offered up for the world. In Him we have not only earthly clothing, but the robe of His righteousness which we were given to wear at the font. In Him we have not only a temporary house to live in, but an eternal home which He is preparing for us.

    That is how St. Paul, when He was in jail for preaching the Gospel, could say, "I have learned the secret of being content in any situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." Even when Paul was beaten and deprived of everything but the clothes on his back, he still had Christ. And the fact of the matter is that if we have Christ, we have everything. For all things belong to the risen Christ, and through Christ the Father will graciously give us all things.

    Is there no peace in this world or in your relationships? In Christ you have the peace that passes all understanding to guard your hearts and minds, the peace that comes from the full and free forgiveness of your sins, the reconciliation of being restored to the Father. Does financial difficulty threaten you? In Christ you are made rich with the promise that God will never leave you or forsake and with heavenly treasures that will never pass away. Do certain enemies harass you or make you fearful? In Christ you have deliverance from all enemies by His crushing of the devil's head at Calvary. Is your health failing? In Christ you have perfect health in the resurrection of the body. Has death separated you from a loved one? In Christ you have a joyous reunion with those you love who have departed in the faith. If you have Jesus, you have it all–by faith now, by sight when He comes again.

    Our thanksgiving is not based primarily on the circumstances of our life.  Our thanksgiving is based first and foremost on our relationship with God, which has been reconciled through the precious blood of the Lamb of God.  Every single one of us, then, has reason to give thanks to God this day, because when it comes to the most important things, eternal things, we've been blessed beyond our comprehension.

    The true worship of God is to give Him thanks.  In the end that’s just about all that we can truly give to Him, anyway, since He’s the source of all things.  We say it all the time in the liturgy, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.”  Let us, then,  call on His name and give Him thanks for our daily bread, for family and friends, for this great land, but above all, for the holy cross, for His saving Gospel and life-giving Sacraments, and for the real and everlasting life that we have in Him. Let us say with the Psalmist, this day and every day, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits."

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

Real Forgiveness Isn't Easy

Matthew 18:21-35
Trinity 22

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

    Most of us would like to believe that we’re pretty forgiving people. As a rule we’re not angry and vengeful and bitter.  We’re nice; we’re forgiving.  But we need to be careful that we’re not fooling ourselves and misunderstanding this.  When someone says to us that they’re sorry, we think we’re being forgiving when we say, “Oh, don’t worry about it.  No big deal.  It’s alright.”  But brushing something off is not the same thing as forgiveness.  That’s just a way of saying you don’t think it’s all that bad.  It didn’t do any permanent damage. You can forget about it and overlook it.  The true test of forgiveness is when something is genuinely truly bad in our estimation, when some real harm was done.  That’s when we start obsessing about the matter.  That’s when we start talking about certain things being unforgivable.  The truth is that you can only call yourself forgiving if you let go of things that genuinely hurt you and don’t desire payback.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.

    It’s very similar in many ways to the practice of tolerance.  Lots of people like to think of themselves as tolerant nowadays.  “I’m not bigoted against other religions or other cultures or LGBT lifestyles.  I’m a tolerant person!”  But when you ask these people, it turns out that they don’t really think there’s anything particularly wrong with any of that in the first place.  So that’s not actually tolerance at all.  You can only tolerate something which you find to be wrong or distasteful or that you disagree with.  You can’t tolerate something and celebrate it at the same time.  Real tolerance sounds more like this, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who spitefully use you.”  Real tolerance is more like a Christian showing love and kindness to someone in spite of their immorality or unbelief.  null

    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’m emphasizing this point 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.  That’s more than three months’ pay!  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, a very real desire to grab our neighbor by the throat and say, “Pay me what you owe, now!  An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!”

    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 18 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.  

    But be sure to understand, the debt still has to be paid; just not by you.  The sin-debt is very real; and so the payment also must be very real.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.  Someone has 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 talents of gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  And by rising again to life, Christ has restored you to life again with the heavenly Father.  All this has been done without any merit or worthiness in you but only because of God’s fatherly 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 his 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.  This is going to stay with me forever.  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 human sin is greater than God’s divine 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 or immediately go into defense mode.  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.  So when you find it difficult to forgive, or when you find yourself feeling unforgiving again toward 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 ✠

Jesus Doesn't Fit the World's Categories

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Matthew 22:34-46
Trinity 18

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

    The Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees.  The Pharisees liked that.  For they and the Sadducees were in opposing camps.  The Sadducees were sort of 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.  The Pharisees did believe in all of those things, and they were glad when Jesus could be used as ammunition against their rivals–anything that would advance their power and their agenda.  Putting it into our terms, the Pharisees were the conservatives, with their emphasis on living a righteous life according to the Law, and the Sadducees were the liberals, the more culturally elite and powerful.

    We know well what it’s like to live in a world where everything has political overtones like that.  There aren’t many areas of life left where you aren’t pressured to take up sides with this or that group.  Relationships with co-workers or friends or family are full of land mines if certain issues of religion or sexuality or gender come up.  Entertainers seem to be focused less on entertaining and more with political mocking and virtue signaling.  Even in the once politics-free realm of sports, political causes are often the focus, and everyone feels compelled to take up sides for this or against that.  Everything we do now is seen through the political lens of privilege or race or gender or class.  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 asserting itself against another.null

    But this is not the way of Jesus.  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 liberal or a moderate?  Just when one group or another thought that He was their man, Jesus would say something to prove that He wasn’t.

    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 an opening.  But Jesus exposed the foolishness of their disbelief in life after death or the resurrection.  The true God whom they claimed to worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”  Jesus was no friend of these establishment leaders, then, either.  Our Lord wouldn’t have been a delegate at any of these groups’ political conventions.

    Like the people in His day, we also want to label Jesus and fit Him into our categories so that we can handle Him and manage Him–Jesus as a republican or a democrat or a free-love libertarian, Jesus as a capitalist or a socialist.  You’ll notice that even unbelievers try to get Jesus on their side and will quote the Bible they never read to support their particular cause.  But Jesus defies all our attempts to make His Word fit our worldly agendas and 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.  If the God you worship agrees with everything you already believed, it’s probably not God you’re worshiping, but yourself.

    “Teacher,” the Pharisees asked, “which is the great commandment in the law?”  It was a question intended to categorize Jesus and support their self-righteous thinking.  It treated the Scriptures like a textbook rather than the living, Spirit-filled words of God.  Our Lord would not play the Pharisees’ game or submit to their litmus test.  So instead of choosing a single commandment, He summarized them all.  Since love is the fulfillment of the law, 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 bunch of 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; all of your allegiance to be with Him alone.

    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 you.  It exposes your lovelessness.  It lays bare your self-satisfying motivations when you do engage in good works.  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 philosophizing 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 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 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 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 which you know only 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 merely 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.  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 the Lamb who was slain whose blood set us free to be children 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 ✠

The Sabbath Work of the Lord

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Luke 14:1-14

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

    It was the Sabbath day.  Jesus had been invited to eat at the house of one of the religious leaders.  But the invitation was not necessarily extended to honor Jesus.  The Gospel says that they were watching Jesus closely, scrutinizing Him to see if they might be able to find some problem with Him.  

    Now there was a particular man at this meal who had what the Scriptures call “dropsy.”  Today we would call it “edema”  a condition where fluid collects in the joints and the tissues causing severe swelling.  Some of you have had to deal with something like that with the swelling of your feet or legs or arms.  We can take water pills for it nowadays.  Of course, back then, there was no such thing.  And this man’s condition was probably worse than mere water retention.  It was something that would’ve caused a good deal of suffering, both because of the physical pain and because of the outward disfigurement that resulted.null

    And so Jesus, knowing the thoughts of those at the table with Him, answers their thinking by asking them a question.  “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”  You see, the religious leaders had taken God’s command not to work on the Sabbath and had made up all sorts of additional rules about what was permissible and what was not.  For instance, they said you could only travel so far on the Sabbath, and if you went beyond a certain number of steps, you were sinning.  And oddly enough, one of the things they considered inappropriate work was healing on the Sabbath.  They thought Jesus should do that on the other six days of the week.  And so Jesus asks, “Is it allowed, do I have permission and authority to heal on the Sabbath?”

    The religious leaders were non-committal and kept silent.  In their silence Jesus took the man and healed him and released him.  The translation in our Gospel says that Jesus “let him go,” giving the impression that the man then left the meal.  But the Greek word here literally means “released.”  What the Gospel is saying is that Jesus released this man from his ailment.  He set him free from that which had held him in bondage.  Jesus took away one of the effects of sin for this man.  For He came for that very purpose of overcoming the curse by the cross.  Jesus still has that authority among His people today, to release you from the bondage of sin and Satan and the grave, to set you free by His forgiveness.

    Jesus asks those at the table another question.  “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?”  “That’s work.  And yet you’d do that.  How much more should I heal this human being who is in the pit of a bodily ailment and pain.”  And they couldn’t answer Him back or come up with any coherent response.

    The religious leaders were wrong about the Sabbath for two reasons.  First of all, they failed to recognize what Jesus said on a different occasion, namely, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was a day to rest the body and especially to hear of what God had done for His people, to meditate on His Word.  It was meant for the good of His people, not as something to enslave them.  The Pharisees had made man the servant of the Sabbath rather than the other way around as it was supposed to be.  It is always lawful to do good and to show mercy on the Sabbath.  No law supercedes the law of love.

    And secondly, the religious leaders were also wrong about the Sabbath because they failed to see that in Christ God was the one doing the work here.  And He is the Lord of the Sabbath.  For Christ to heal on the Sabbath is perfectly in keeping with the intent of the day, since the Sabbath is all about people stopping their work to focus on God’s work.  That’s what the Sabbath was about in the Old Testament, and that’s what it’s still about today in the New Testament: You stop your work so that you may receive God’s work for you in Christ.

    Now it is true that in the Old Testament the day of rest had to be the 7th day of the week, namely, Saturday.  But with Christ’s coming the Law was fulfilled so that the requirement to worship on a particular day no longer applies.  Colossians 2 says, “Sabbaths are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”  The Old Testament day of rest pointed us forward to Him who is Himself our rest and our peace, namely, Jesus.  Why focus on all the Old Testament shadows when the One who is casting the shadow has come!  Now we may worship on any day of the week, as long as the center of that worship is the Word of the Savior who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  The Sabbath is all about Jesus.  The church has chosen Sunday as its primary day of worship because that is the day of our Lord’s resurrection by which He won for us eternal rest and peace in heaven.

    Perhaps you’ve noticed that the meaning to the third commandment in the catechism doesn’t mention anything about a day of the week, but rather states, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  The Sabbath day is about you stopping your work and letting God do His work on you and for you.  And God’s work is to preach His words of repentance and forgiveness, to lead you to see your sin and to bring you to faith in Christ who died to make full payment for your sin.  Coming to church is not your opportunity to do something for God; it’s God’s opportunity to do something for you.

    The fact of the matter is that when it comes to spiritual and eternal things, you cannot do anything for God anyway.  You are like that donkey or that ox that has fallen into the pit and cannot get out.  You are in bondage to sin and death, and not matter how much you paw at the sides, you can’t get up over the edge and free.  But Christ comes along on the Sabbath and by the power of His suffering and His resurrection, He pulls you out of the pit, releasing you, giving you new life through the preaching of His Word of forgiveness and through the supper of His living body and blood.

    That’s why it’s so important for every one of you to be here in divine service every week–not because it’s some burdensome requirement as the Pharisees made it, but because Jesus is still exercising His authority to heal and restore you on the Sabbath.  This is for your spiritual and eternal good, not only that you may rest your bodies by taking a day off from work, but so that in resting you may receive God’s work for you in Christ His Son.  It’s no wonder that so many people find it so hard to find rest and peace when they cut themselves off from the source of their rest and peace by staying away from preaching and the supper.  If they’re not working on the Lord’s day, they sleep in, or they take part in various sorts of recreation and relaxation.  But all of that is only temporary.  When it’s over they’re back to the same restless, peaceless way of life and daily grind that they had before.  They don’t yet know the peace and the rest which passes all understanding and which transcends all the daily troubles of this life.  There is no greater calm that one’s conscience can have than in hearing and believing that your sins are forgiven through the shedding of Christ’s blood, that you are reconciled to God in Jesus.  He is on your side.  He is with you every day that you must yet live in this troubled and fallen world, and He will surely bring you to Himself to share in the fullness of His life in heaven.  That’s the sure word of Christ to you today.  That is your Sabbath rest, the work of Jesus for you.

    Since the Sabbath is all about God’s work, what Jesus is doing, it is necessary that we come before Him with an attitude of humility.  It’s not about us and our works.  This is His show, His teaching, His meal.  Our place at the table is not something for us to take but for Him to give.  We all come before God as beggars, without any right to exalt ourselves in His presence.  No one here is greater or lesser than another.  Whatever we are is a gift of His grace.  

    So instead of jockeying for the places of honor at the table and in this world, Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’  Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you.”  Humble yourself before God.  Acknowledge your sin in true repentance, trusting in His mercy.  Do not come to assert your spiritual rights, but come recognizing that it is the Lord’s place to bestow honor and glory, and it your place simply to receive what His good and gracious will gives.  Those who love and honor the Lord in humble faith will be exalted by Him and brought to everlasting glory in the presence of the whole creation.

    Jesus put Himself in the lowest place, the place of death, in order to save you.  He bore your shame on the cross to restore your honor.  And now Jesus is exalted to the highest place at the right hand of the Father.  And the good news is that He has raised you up with Himself.  By your baptismal faith you are united with Him in such a way that you share in His exaltation as members of His body.  Remember, this is a wedding feast that Jesus speaks of.  It is the celebration of His holy union with the Church, His bride.  And if He is honored, then she also is honored with Him.

    Even now Jesus is here among us at the head of the table.  To every penitent heart He says, “Friend, go up higher.”  “Come, ascend these steps to this holy place.  Share in My honor by receiving My own body and blood.  Be filled with My forgiveness and My life.  Here is your Sabbath rest and healing.  Here is the foretaste of that Last Day when in the resurrection you will go up higher forever.”

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

Are You Not of More Value Than They?

Matthew 6:24-34
Trinity 15

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

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

    Where is that we are to find our value and our worth?  With all our concern about teaching self-esteem, kids realize as they grow up that being told that they’re wonderful and awesome and special all the time doesn’t really mean much unless it’s based on something real.  What is it that makes you worth something?  We often try to find the answer by looking to our own qualities–our intelligence or our good looks or our creativity and talents.  Or we define our worth by our value to others–I’m needed at my job, or I have an important role in my family, or my friends and neighbors depend on me.  And that’s all fine and good.  But what happens if you begin to lose your mental acuity or your money or your looks?  What happens if you’re no longer needed at your job, and your family and friends don’t depend on you as much as they once did?  Have you suddenly lost your worth?  Certainly not!null

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

    You who are gathered here are children of the heavenly Father, as we just sang.  And don’t discount that phrase or make it into some generic platitude.  You get to address the God of all creation, the Almighty Maker of the universe, as Father, Dad.  You are His children.  You have the key to the house.  You have the code to the garage door.  You have a spot at the table.  

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

    Now it is true that this image has been broken in you because of your sin; and that’s no small thing.  Like a shattered mirror, the image we reflect is disjointed and distorted and all out of place.  We’re all bent and turned in ourselves, like something from a fun house mirror in a horror movie.  But that brings us, then, to the second reason why we are children of the heavenly Father: Jesus has restored the image of God to our humanity.  This, too, is what distinguishes us from every other creature.  The Son of God did not become any of the animals, or even an angel.  The only Son of the Father, through whom all things were created, entered into His creation and took our humanity into Himself, becoming a true flesh and blood man.  And in that way humanity was restored.  Colossians 1 says that Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  Jesus wasn’t just born in the image of God; He is the image of God.  And so that image has been imprinted again on our humanity in Him.  

    If that doesn’t give you a sense of value and worth, I don’t know what will.  The Son of God has made Himself to be your flesh and blood, your blood brother.  He died in the flesh for you as your substitute to break sin’s curse; He shed His blood on the cross to cleanse you and reconcile you to the Father.  He rose again with His truly human body to restore your humanity to the fullness of life with God forever.  No other creature in the universe can say that!  Only human beings, only you can say that God shares in your nature in the person of Jesus.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In fact, we eagerly await the day when we can be rid of our mortal clothing–this perishable flesh and blood–and put on our new and everlasting clothing in the resurrection of the body.  It is written in 1 Corinthians 15, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. . .  Then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ . . .  Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

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

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

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

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