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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 ✠

Creation and New Creation in Jesus

Genesis 1:1 - 2:3
Trinity 21

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

    I’m sure you noticed how long today’s Old Testament reading was.  So much of it repeats!  And yet in this account, and precisely in the repeating, the Lord is teaching and telling us something very important.  Particularly in today’s decaying culture, we dare not zip through the creation narrative as if it’s unimportant or because we’ve heard it all before.  For it is increasingly relevant to some very fundamental issues that our society is grappling with today.

    One of the things that gets repeated is the phrase, “It was good.”  “And God saw that it was good.”  “And indeed, it was very good.”  What’s being described there?  This material world that God made, and particularly our physical, earthly bodies that He fashioned and formed.  That’s no minor thing for us to recognize and confess.  For that is precisely what the world is rejecting and distorting and corrupting.null

    Here’s how the world is doing that.  As it drifts away from belief in an Almighty Creator, it increasingly embraces the old spiritualist pagan notions that divide body and soul and that denigrate our physical natures as something lesser or lower than the spirit.  This type of thinking even infects us Christians, where we tend to think of body and soul as two separate and independent things, when they’re not.  To put it simply, the soul is the unique life of a particular bodily person.  In fact in the NT, the word for soul can also be translated as “life.”  Only death rips body and life, body and soul apart in the most unnatural of occurrences.  And so it’s not like in the movies where the spirit of one person can inhabit the body of another, or anything like that; that’s not how it works.  There aren’t little souls up in heaven waiting to jump down into a body during pregnancy.  No, the soul is the unique life of a particular body, both of which God creates as one at conception, and which He described in the beginning as good.  Only the awful curse of sin and death tears asunder the flesh and spirit that God has joined together.

    This is important to remember, because then we will avoid the foolish thinking which says, “My outward behavior and actions don’t have much eternal significance.  It’s what’s on the inside, not the body but the soul that matters.”  This is how people can continuously conduct themselves one way with their bodies, avoiding church or acting sinfully in some way, and then still claim to be very spiritual and have faith in God in their hearts.  They really think that body and spirit can be separated like that.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can willfully and continuously engage bodily in sinful deeds, or willfully refrain from doing bodily good, and somehow that has nothing to do with your heart and your spirit and your faith.  That’s just justifying sin and demeaning God’s created gift of your body.

    This sort of pagan thinking has so infected our culture that some supposedly smart people actually talk about gender and one’s biological sex as if they’re two different things, as if a man can be trapped in a female body, or vice versa.  How ridiculous! As if you can be one gender in your spirit and a different sex biologically, as if you can have a mismatched body and soul!  Your gender is not based on some feeling or preference that you have, but on the body that God created; it’s as straightforward as that.  “Male and female He created them.”  This doesn’t come from within us; it’s given to us from outside of us. To say otherwise is to reject one’s Creator and to engage in unbelief and the idolatry of the self.  It is to say that what God created is not good, not right.  

    Now, to be sure, humanity’s fall into sin has corrupted all of creation.  And so, too, our maleness or femaleness that God created as good can be corrupted and distorted, and this can show itself even in biological ways in very rare cases.  But those effects of the curse–which must be handled with great compassion–they don’t undo the fundamental truth, reflected even in our DNA, that God created us male and female, and only male or female–there’s not 3 or 10 or 30 options like the world is trying to put forth.  The answer to the curse of sin as it affects our bodies and souls is not to embrace the curse and call it good, but to seek deliverance from the curse by God’s mercy.  

    And of course, it needs to be said that this also applies to homosexual behavior.  Only those who deny the Creator and the goodness of His bodily creation, who reject male and female as foundational to a God-given sexual union, can support same-sex relationships.  Only a person who rejects the Creator’s words, “Be fruitful and multiply” can call gay marriage good, for by its very nature it is sterile and cannot be fruitful or produce life–and not because of age or a health defect, but by its very nature.  Only male and female together form the completeness of what humanity is, both biologically and theologically.  Even if someone feels same-sex attraction as a natural thing for whatever reason, that doesn’t change matters.  For we are all naturally inclined to sinful desires of some sort, from greed to lust to gluttony to envy to selfish pride.  Just because a desire comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s good or that we should embrace it; we must, each and every one of us, repent of such things.  To be sure, we should deal with all people without hatred and with compassion and love.  But it’s not an act of compassion to condone and accept someone’s sin.  That doesn’t help them.  That’s certainly not the way of real love.  God’s love rather calls us all to turn away from our sins, whatever they are, and turn to Him.  For His desire is to deliver us from the death that sin brings and to give us His life forever.

    And the creation account is all about how God gives His life to us.  First, note how God goes about creating.  He doesn’t start with pre-existing stuff.  Rather, He calls things into existence by the power of His Word.  “Thy strong Word did cleave the darkness; at Thy speaking, it was done.”  “Let there be light,” and there was light.  There’s the second thing that keeps getting repeated in this account.  God speaks again and again, saying “Let there be . . .”  God brings life to creation by His Word.  So it was in the beginning; so it has been all throughout history, and so it is still to this very day–it’s all the power of the Word.

    Interestingly, the Gospel of John in the New Testament begins just like Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made.”  The Word is Jesus, the Word made Flesh. Through the living Word of His Son, God created everything out of nothing.  The Word, the Son of God, is powerful and creative.  He brings about what He says.  All creatures owe their existence to Christ the Word, whether they know Him or not.  In fact, it is written in Colossians 1 that not only were all things created through the Son of God but that in Him all things hold together still.  Jesus is the Logos (to use the Greek word); He is the logic, the wisdom of the universe.  The Laws of nature, the intricate complexities of the smallest strand of DNA to the largest galaxy, the beauty and the orderliness and the liveliness of creation all find their source in Jesus.  This is why we hold so firmly to the biblical account of creation and the way our Maker has ordered things.  It’s an essential part of our faith; in the end it’s all about Jesus.  To reject the Creator is also to reject the Savior.  Creation is not a separate topic from the Gospel of Christ.  Christ is intimately involved in creation right from the start.  And the Gospel is all about how Jesus takes His good creation, which is now thoroughly infected with sin and death because of man’s fall, and how He makes all things new, how He brings about the new creation in Himself.

    The living Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father, became flesh in order to redeem His fallen creation and restore mankind to life.  Jesus became a part of His own creation Himself in order to renew it.  As your flesh and blood brother, He took your place under judgment and was held accountable for your sins.  Just as all creation groans under the curse with earthquakes and hurricanes and droughts and fires and the like, so Jesus groaned and breathed His last for you on the cross to break the curse of death and to free you from your bondage to decay and destruction.  The shed blood of Christ cleanses you and renews you and puts you right with the Father again.  

    And the creation account itself foretells and foreshadows this saving work of Christ.  For there’s something else that keeps getting repeated every day in this narrative.  Notice how the days are marked: it’s not morning and then evening the way we usually think of it, but first evening and then morning–evening and morning, the first day; evening and morning, the second day, and so on.  First it’s darkness, then it’s light.  First it’s the shadow of death, then it’s the light of life.  Jesus dies in the darkness of Good Friday to subdue creation, and then He rises at the dawn of Easter on the first day of the week to be the Light of the world, to put an end to death and to bring about a new creation.  With fallen humanity, it’s first you live, and then you die.  Light then darkness.  But with Christ it’s darkness then light; first death, then the resurrection of the body to life everlasting.  

    Man was created on the sixth day, and then God rested on the seventh.  It’s the same way with Jesus, the new Adam.  Man was redeemed and recreated on the 6th day of the week, Good Friday.  He then rested in the tomb on the seventh day, having finished His work of redemption.  And He rose again to bring about an eternal eighth day, a day of unending light and life.  The Scriptures say that in the new creation there will be no night.  For the Lord God will be its light at all times, and the Lamb will be its lamp.  We will need no rest; for He Himself is our rest and our peace.  In Jesus the image of God is restored to us.  In Jesus our lost humanity is given back to us, and we are made fully human again, prepared soul and body to live in the joys of God’s presence.  

    That’s what the new creation will be, a real, tangible, bodily, renewed world where God Himself dwells with His people.  If material things have no eternal significance, then why would Jesus share in our flesh and blood, die in the flesh, and then rise bodily, even now still being fully human at the right hand of the Father?  It’s because the body is good, and Jesus came to redeem us entirely.  Salvation is not being delivered out of this creation.  It’s for all things to be made new, for creation to be restored through Christ.  You see how that puts a different perspective on our life in this world?  Our physical lives have great meaning, for God created us to in His image, to be His icons, His presence in the world, to have dominion over creation as His instruments, to continue to set things in order and to bring His life and His self-giving to others.  Remember what’s going to happen at the close of this age: it’s not that we’re going to go to heaven and leave material things behind.  It’s that heaven is going to come to us.  God will dwell with us, visibly in all His glory, and we shall be His people.  That renewing, life-giving presence of our Lord is what makes the new creation what it is.

    And you have a very real taste of the Lord’s presence right here and now.  For the creative Word of God is still speaking, saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”  “I forgive you all your sins.”  “This is My body; this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And  by that Word, the bread actually is His body and the wine actually is His blood, that you may be cleansed and filled with His life and light.  Cling to the Word; believe it that you may receive its blessing.  For only the Word of Christ can recreate you and put you back in order again.  It is written, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.”  “Then God saw everything that He had made in Christ, and indeed it was very good.”

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

A Law Question and a Gospel Question

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

    One thing I’ve discovered through the years is that most people, even unchurched people, don’t usually mind discussing questions about God and morality.  Even those who never have time for divine service will often still have time to express their opinions on this or that religious topic.  But that’s where the problem often is: what we end up doing is simply to make God an object of discussion and debate.  Folks talk about theology the same way they discuss politics or the economy or sports:  creation vs. evolution, the presidential race, gay marriage, Lutheranism vs. Roman Catholicism, police shootings, racial protests and riots, Islam and refugees, what’s wrong with the Packers offense–these are all just things to talk about and take sides on.  Spiritually speaking the problem is this: when the things of God become simply a topic to discuss and debate like anything else, that can actually become a way of keeping the Lord at arms length–religion’s an idea out there that we can safely control and manage.  It then becomes about concepts rather than about a person: the God we live under and are accountable to, Who desires that we live in communion with Him, the Redeemer who is our very life.

    And one of the easiest ways to talk religion without actually having come to terms with the living God is to debate morality, to discuss the Law–which, of course, is fine and good.  But as we see in today’s Gospel, for the Pharisees it had become a bit of a game and a litmus test.  Jesus had just silenced the elite Sadducees, who were sort of the liberals of the day.  The conservative Pharisees liked that.  Now, they thought, let’s see if Jesus passes the test and can fit properly into our group.  With their question, they wanted to be able to categorize Jesus and put Him into one of their boxes, so that they could handle Him and manage Him.  null

    “Teacher,” they asked, “which is the great commandment in the law?”  It was a question intended to bring Jesus down to their level.  Notice how Jesus was supposed to pick just one commandment.  If Jesus answered the right way, the way that agreed with their group’s thinking and shared their priorities, then He would simply be one of them.  But if not, then they could debate Jesus’ answer as if they were His equals and dismiss Him, all the while reducing the living voice of God’s Law to a matter of ethical points.  Either way, they were using the Law in a lawless way, as a way of exalting themselves rather than humbling themselves before God.  Beware of trying to argue moral questions simply for the sake of being right or winning a debate or justifying yourself.  That’s not why God gave the Law.  The Law is always meant to lead us to repentance and to Christ.

    Our Lord’s wisdom would not play the Pharisees’ game or submit to their litmus test.  He did not choose a single commandment.  Instead, He summarized them all.  He cut through their vain request and exposed the foolishness of pitting God’s Word against itself.  Love is the fulfillment of the law.  So Jesus answers in two parts.  First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  That’s not something you can reduce down to a 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, all that you own, with nothing held back from Him.  He wants the entire devotion of your heart; all of your love, your allegiance to be with Him alone.

    And Jesus doesn’t stop there, 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 side by side, hand in hand.  The love of God and the love of the neighbor are inseparable.  You cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbor.  For God seeks to be loved in your neighbor.  The Lord Jesus–who took up our nature and truly shares in our humanity–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.  This love is limitless in how it is to be expressed and shown.  

    That is where the living voice of the Law nails us and condemns us for falling short.  It exposes our lovelessness.  It exposes our self-satisfying motivations when we do engage in loving works.  It brings nothing but judgment and death.  

    Repent, therefore, and turn to Christ.  For Jesus here gets us back on the track that leads to salvation and life.  The Pharisees had asked a Law question, but now Jesus asks a Gospel question, not one that focuses on us, but one that focuses on who He is.  Jesus gets us away from moral concepts and religious debates and gets us to meditate instead on 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 about the Gospel with this question, to get them to see the saving reality of who He is.

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

    Here, then, is where the good news is for us.  Jesus, thankfully, does not come in a way that fits into our mental categories and according to the expectations of whatever groups we align ourselves with.  He isn’t a liberal or a conservative.  His ways are infinitely higher and better.  He comes not in the way of fallen man but in the way of His perfect self-giving 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 that you now know by faith you will see with your own eyes at Jesus’ return–when He who is at God’s right hand is revealed in all His glory, and all things that are under His feet will be put under your feet with Him.  

    Therefore, brothers and sisters of Christ, remember that theology is not just something we talk about, it is the God, the Redeemer we come face to face with, and whom we confess, the Jesus who is our life and who desires that we share in His life and have fellowship with Him forever.  He is present here now–not as a concept but as pure love in the flesh, 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 ✠

This Man Went Down to His House Justified

Luke 18:9-14

Trinity 11

 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
When you are considering a Biblical account and how it applies to you, one of the things to do is to figure out where you fit into the story. Who am I in this particular portion of Scripture?  Which character represents me, my thoughts, my actions?  Well, in today’s Gospel, you’ve got two choices.  Either you’re the Pharisee or you’re the tax collector.  Either you’re the self-righteous puritan or you’re the thieving, unclean sinner.  Not much of a choice is it?  But those are your options.  Who are you?
 
“Jesus spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.”  “Well,” you say, “that’s certainly not talking about me.  I know I’m not righteous.  Nobody’s perfect.”  However, don’t be so quick to dismiss what Jesus says.  Sure, I don’t think there’s anyone here who would stand up and say that they’re perfect and righteous.  We’ve all made mistakes; we all have our flaws.  But on the other hand, most of you think that the flaws you do have aren’t all that serious.  And you’ve got pretty good justifications for your mistakes.  “Some person did something to me and set me off.  This or that happened to me in my childhood; my parents are to blame.  The circumstances I was presented with left me no good options.”  Trying to justify yourselves and your sin like that is the opposite of being justified by God through faith in His mercy.  And it’s certainly the opposite of a repentant heart.null
 
You see, most think, “Sure, I’m not without sin, but who is (as if that were a justification)?  All in all I’d say I’ve lived a decent life.  There’s more good than bad in me, and certainly that counts for something with God.  I try my hardest to do what’s right, and when I mess up, God’s not going to send me to hell for that, is he?  I mean, come on, I go to church when I can, I give offerings, I volunteer.  Compared to a lot of others in this society, I think I’m doing OK.  Look at our presidential candidates and politicians.  Look at the immorality and hypocrisy of celebrities; look at all the weirdos and perverts in society.  I’m a better person than they are.  I thank God that I’m not like that.  I’m just regular person, doing my best to live a good life, and I think in the end God will reward me for that.”  Does that sound a little more familiar?  That’s how the contemporary Pharisee talks and despises others.  If that is how you are tempted to think or talk, God help you and grant you repentance.
 
The Pharisee’s problem was not that he thanked God for where he was in life.  We all should do that.  If we suffered the worst consequences of our sins, every one of us would be in awful shape, right?  As the saying says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  Nor was the Pharisee’s problem that he tried to live an outwardly righteous life.  Wouldn’t it be great if all of us would be more pious and zealous in seeking to do what is good and right.  Wouldn’t it be great if all of us would give the full 10% tithe in our offerings (especially looking at today’s bulletin).  No, the Pharisee’s problem was that he trusted in those works of his as if they were the thing that would put Him right with God.  The problem was inward and in the heart.  He didn’t place His confidence in what God had done for him but in what he had done for God.  He really was worshiping Himself. 
 
You can see that the focus of his religion was backwards in the way that he prays.  Five times in his short prayer he uses the word “I.”  “I thank You that I am not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  In fact, Jesus says the Pharisee prayed “with himself,” almost as if God was the bystander and he was the main event.  Beware of prayers and worship in which God is simply there as a prop and window dressing while the focus is really on those doing the praying or on their worldly agendas.  In the end that is self-worship and self-righteousness.  That’s the problem with so much of so-called contemporary worship.  God’s name is used, but the center of attention is the people on stage and what they’re doing and how they’re performing and the agendas they’re pushing, not the words and works of God.
 
God gave His good and wise Law not so that you may justify yourself but so that you may see how much you need His help and deliverance, how much you need Him to justify you.  The Law is there not so that you can see how good you’re doing compared to others.  It is there so that you can see how you’re doing compared with the holy God and what He requires.  The purpose of the Law is not only to show you how you must live but also to expose how greatly you have fallen short of its demands. 
 
When all is said and done, the Pharisee and the tax collector are in the exact same condition.  Though one looks good and impressive and the other doesn’t, both share the same heart disease called sin.  Both of them are foul and unclean within.  The tax collector is showing symptoms of his sin-disease, whereas the Pharisee seems to have his mostly under control (except for pride).  But both have the same root disorder; both are just a heartbeat away from death, as the Epistle says, “You were dead in trespasses and sins.”  
 
Let me ask you:  Who’s in the better position, the man about to go in for heart surgery or the one unaware that he has the same condition who’s about to keel over dead?  Who’s in the better position before God, the Pharisee who falsely thinks that everything’s fine, or the tax collector who understands the true diagnosis?  Learn from the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Believe the terminal diagnosis that the Law has made about you.  Humble yourself before God in true repentance; seek His healing, His cleansing, His righteousness. 
 
For it is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:17).  The Lord certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did.  For the tax collector comes not in pride but in lowly penitence and faith.  This is not fake humility or going through the motions.  The tax collector stands afar off from those praying in the temple; for he knows how his sin cuts him off from God and others.  He does not raise his eyes to heaven; for he knows he deserves no heavenly blessing.  He beats his chest when he prays in token that he is worthy to be punished severely.  He cries out his only hope, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
 
The tax collector places his confidence and trust not in anything about himself but entirely in the Lord and His mercy.  He despairs of his own merits and character and entrusts himself completely to the merits and character of God.  He relies not on his own sacrifice but on God’s sacrifice.  For when the tax collector prays for mercy, he uses a word that has to do with the offering up of the animals there in the temple.  He desires the atonement for sin that only God can provide through the shedding of blood.  Remember, it was at these times of public prayer in the temple when an animal would be sacrificed on the altar according to God’s command to cover the sins of the people.  Therefore, at the very moment in which the tax collector prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” his prayer was being answered right there in the sacrifice which the Lord provided.  The tax collector trusted in the Lord’s sacrificial mercy, and he yearned for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all these things to their fulfillment.
 
The Pharisee thought he was righteous, but he is not the one who is justified before God.  No, it is the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, declared righteous in God’s sight.  And so it is also for each of you who pray in humility and penitent faith, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”  For the sacrifice has also been made for you, not in the temple, but in Jesus’ body, on the cross.  There Christ, the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all.  By His shed blood your sins have been fully atoned for, and you have been put right with God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  You are justified before God, declared righteous in His sight through Christ.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  It’s all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s what we boast and brag about.  Just as the lifeblood of Abel the shepherd covered the dust of the ground, the blood of your Good Shepherd Jesus covers you who are made from the dust and gives you new life.  For His blood cries not for vengeance but for mercy.  Just as the ground opened its mouth to receive Abel's blood, so we open our mouths in the Sacrament to receive the blood of Christ for our forgiveness and to raise us up to new life.
 
I began this sermon by pointing out how, in applying a Bible passage to yourself, it’s good to find where you are in the story.  But even more so, it is of utmost importance to find where Jesus is in the story for you.  In today’s Gospel He is there in the temple, the place of God’s holy presence; He is there in the sacrifices, which foreshadowed His own.  And Jesus is also there in the tax collector, who humbled himself and was exalted in the end.  It is written that the Son of God humbled Himself even to the point of death on the cross, in our place and for our sins.  Therefore, God the Father has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  
 
Fellow baptized, to be a Christian is nothing else than to follow in this way of Christ–to be laid low with Him through repentance and death to sin, and to be raised up with Him through faith to new life and the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  So don’t look within yourselves like the Pharisee, for there is nothing there but sin and death; look outside of yourselves like the tax collector.  Look to Christ alone, for in Him there is full forgiveness and life.   God grant you all to know the truth and the wisdom of Jesus’ words, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Not to Destroy, But to Fulfill

Matthew 5:17-26
Trinity 6

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

    “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets,” Jesus says.  Now why would the people think that in the first place?  Where would they get the idea that Jesus might be teaching something against the Law or the Prophets?  Well, consider how different Jesus was from the legalistic religious leaders of His day.  He ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He healed on the Sabbath.  He touched the unclean and diseased.  He preached repentance and forgiveness, the lovingkindness and mercy of God.  He was a bit of a radical.  And so some may have drawn the false conclusion that He was casting aside the Old Testament and giving them something altogether different.

    In order to dispel any such notion, Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”  He wasn’t undoing and trashing the Law and the Prophets; rather, He was bringing them to their perfect expression and realization in Himself.  Everything written in the Old Testament comes to its pinnacle and culmination in Jesus.null

    That’s why He goes on to say, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  Anyone who says that the ten commandments no longer apply to today’s contemporary world, that traditional definitions of marriage and morality can be discarded, that times have changed and church teaching has to change with them–those who say such things, even under the guise of love and tolerance and inclusiveness, are acting against Christ.  He didn’t come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

    And this applies not only to others out there, but also to us in here.  We know well the temptation to brush aside God’s Law, to think to ourselves, “Even though this is wrong, even though it breaks a commandment, I can go ahead and do it anyway because God will forgive me.”  We in effect destroy God’s Law when we misuse His grace in that way, as an excuse to live however we please.

    St. Paul addresses this in the Epistle.  “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”  God’s forgiveness is not a  license to sin, it’s freedom from sin.  It’s the taking away of sin.  Why would we want to embrace again the very things which once condemned us to hell?  Since the old Adam still hangs around our neck, tempting us to think lightly of sin, the Law is still in force in this fallen world.  Not one jot or tittle will pass away from it till all is fulfilled at Christ’s return.  The commandments still apply to every single one of us, calling us to repent.

    However, just because that is so, we shouldn’t fall into the opposite error and think that we can gain eternal life by our keeping of the Law, or by simply changing our ways.  For listen to what Jesus also says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  It’s not just that you have to do your best and try your hardest, and God will accept that.  It’s that you’ve got to do even better than those who dedicated their whole lives to keeping God’s Law down to the finest detail, otherwise you can forget about eternal life.  Not even the Pharisees, not even today’s strictest monks make it on their own steam.  It is written in James 2, “Whoever keeps the whole Law and yet fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”  And who among us has failed only in one point to begin with?

    God isn’t simply after good outward behavior, He seeks inward righteousness.  And so Jesus speaks of the 5th Commandment in the Gospel reading; it’s not simply that you shouldn’t murder–like the Orlando night club shooter, or the Instanbul airport terrorists–but if you speak angry words or harbor ill thoughts or desire payback, you’re being like shooters and terrorists in your hearts; it’s all rebellion and a breaking of God’s Law.  And it’s not only what we shouldn’t do but what we should do, too–seeking reconciliation with those who have wronged us, or those whom we have wronged, as far as that is possible, as far as it depends on us.

    All of this was beyond the self-serving religion of the Pharisees, whom Jesus called “whitewashed tombs,” outwardly clean and pure, but inwardly full of uncleanness and dead men’s bones.  This is what all human righteousness is: A good looking and attractive exterior that covers nothing but rotting, stinking death on the inside.  Can you do any better than the scribes and the Pharisees?  Then you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  That’s the judgment of the Law.

    The central purpose of the Law, then, is not to save us but to drive us to Christ, our only hope and our only Help.  For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone.  We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.”  Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law.  For only Jesus has kept the Law without fault or failing.  Again He said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets.  I did not come to destroy but to fulfill (them).”  And all of this Jesus did for you and in your place.  Through faith in Him, His righteousness is counted as yours.

    It is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.”  Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand.  Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, showing compassion, healing, doing good and teaching the truth to all.  Our Lord lived a holy life as our representative and our substitute, so that our unholy lives would be redeemed.

    And Jesus also fulfilled the Law by completing all of the old ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth.  Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus Himself became your eternal Sabbath rest; and so He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I will release from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.”  And by His once-for-all, final sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus cleansed you from your sin and purified you.  All the Old Testament Jewish rules and regulations found their goal in Jesus, who put that all to an end in His crucified body, that the Law might no longer condemn you.  You’ve been put right with God again.  That’s what Jesus was saying on the cross, “It is finished.”  It is accomplished, completed, perfected, fulfilled.  All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  Our Lord is now risen from the dead to give you new life and a sure hope.

    That new life, that sure hope is entirely yours in holy baptism.  For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  His death counts as your death.  The hellish judgment he experienced counts for you too.  It’s all done and behind you.  Living in Christ, taking refuge under His wings, you are holy to Him; you are protected and kept safe from the power of sin and Satan and from death itself.

    That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be impossible are now, in fact, true in Him:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  By faith in Christ, your righteousness does exceed that of the Pharisees, for it has been given to you freely by God’s grace.  You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus as your own.  The Father has declared you to be righteous in His sight.  He didn’t just demand that you straighten out your life, He gave you a whole new life, the life of Jesus that is full and complete and perfect and everlasting.  Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact you have already entered it by faith.  For you are in Christ, the King of heaven.

    Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism, out of the house of bondage.  Your old selves were crucified with Christ, that you should no longer be slaves to sin.  Therefore, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  For just as you have been united with Him in His death, you will surely also be united with Him in the resurrection of the body when He comes again.  To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all worship, honor, glory, and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

As a Little Child

Concordia Catechetical Academy Symposium–"Keeping Our Children in the Faith"
Thursday, June 16, 2016
 
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
 
In the kingdoms of this world, privilege usually comes with age–you can drive, or order a glass of wine at a restaurant, or get a specialized job when you’re old enough, when you’ve met all the necessary standards and requirements.  But in the kingdom of God privilege comes with youth.  What is necessary is that you’re young enough, before you can even begin to point to any personal merits and accomplishments or try to justify your behavior.  “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
 
This is something that our sinful nature despises.  Of course, we like the imagery of little children; we’re not so harsh as those disciples, of course.  What we don’t like, what we rebuke, in fact, is the idea that our resume and the entrance application that we’ve worked up isn’t what gains us acceptance into the kingdom.  Our flesh still wants to believe that our own credentials and the status that we’ve earned must play at least some part in making us suitable to come to the Lord.  But Jesus is greatly displeased at this thinking.  Repent of it.null
 
Hear what Jesus is saying with His words, “Let the little children come to Me.”  It’s not that they’re innocent–parents of little ones know that well enough.  It’s not even that they’ll believe pretty much whatever you tell them.  To be as a little child, indeed as a nursing infant, is to be completely dependent on the care and providing of another, to be utterly helpless apart from the Lord, to have nothing to give and everything to receive from Him.  For Jesus has everything to give.  “He took them up in His arms and blessed them.”  “To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? (Is 53:1)” but to such little ones, even to those whom the world considers foolish and weak.
 
This also is how the fruit of the womb is a reward and a gift that is not to be hindered or despised.  God helps us to be as little children by giving us little children to teach raise and to learn from–to see the faith again through their eyes.  For the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
 
Some have wondered why it is that we baptize infants before teaching them but teach adult catechumens before baptizing them.  There is no pretense in an infant at the font; there may be with an adult.  We catechize those who are older first, in part, to make sure that they’re young enough, that they receive the kingdom of God and the Word of God as if they were a little child.  So it is that this Gospel reading is used at a baptism regardless of whether it is an infant or an adult who is being baptized.
 
This is also why we all are urged to return to our baptism daily.  That exhortation is nothing else than a call to go back to being little again before the Lord, to humble yourself before Him that He may lift you up in His arms and bless you with His mercy and life.  To repent is to be turned from your self-indulgence and your self-justifying pride and to be brought to Christ so that He may be all in all for you.  It is as John the Baptizer said, “He must increase, I must decrease.”  In decreasing like that, John was declared by Jesus to be the greatest, for Christ was everything for Him.
 
It is only in becoming small that one becomes great in the kingdom of heaven.  In fact it is only by becoming nothing, dying to ourselves that we truly live.  God has chosen the things which are not, Scripture says, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should boast in His presence (1 Cor. 1:27-29).  It is out of the barrenness of Sarah’s flesh, and Abraham who was as good as dead, that God brought forth life and carried on the promise.  
 
The little children of God’s kingdom are those who have been born again by God’s doing, from above, by water and the Spirit. 
Martin Luther famously said in the Large Catechism, “I am a doctor and preacher, yes, as learned and experienced as all those may be who have such presumption and security; yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism, and every morning, and whenever I have time, I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Psalms, etc. And I must still read and study daily, and yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and am glad so to remain.”
 
Keeping our children in the faith, then, has to do with helping them to remain children in the faith.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  No matter how much one grows in the faith, this beginning of humility and reverence for the Lord can never be left behind, or there is no growth at all.  When we’re always going back to the beginning, we’re always going back to our dependency on the Lord who made the beginning, and who is the beginning and the ending, the Alpha and the Omega.  He alone is the one who does the keeping, as we say in the Benediction.
 
For Jesus is the One who made Himself small for you–not only when He was a little child in the arms of His mother–He even made Himself nothing, humbling Himself to the point of death on a cross to redeem you as His own.  Depending entirely on His Father, entrusting His spirit into the Father’s hands, He was fully confident that He would be vindicated in the resurrection.  Now the Son is taken up to the Father’s right hand where He lives to intercede for you.  In Him who is in the bosom of the Father, God blesses you and keeps you.
 
It has been observed that when we near the ending of our lives, there is a similarity to the beginning of our lives, when we need to be cared for, when we become more dependent on others.  That feels like a curse, and it certainly is a result of the fall.  But in Christ, who tasted death for us, even this is redeemed.  The Lord teaches us here once again to become as little children, not grasping for control of our own lives, but entrusting ourselves into His hands, like an infant at the baptismal font.  In death we are entirely as little children in the Lord’s strong arms, awaiting the blessing of the resurrection of the body.
 
Jesus prayed, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes.  Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in your sight” (Matthew 11:25-26).  So then, little children, keep yourselves from idols (1 John 5:21).  As newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word that you may grow thereby, now that you have tasted that the Lord is gracious (1 Peter 2:2-3).
 
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

Rest for Your Souls

Matthew 11:25-30

 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
For all of the leisure time we have in our modern era, for all the hours we spend engaged with our various screens and technologies, it’s amazing how often people complain about being tired and worn out.  It may not only be a physical weariness of difficult or tedious work, but a mental exhaustion, too, information overload.  As the warm weather finally arrives, people are eager to get away from it all and take a trip or a vacation, decompress and recharge.  Of course, as enjoyable as a getaway can be, most people realize they need a vacation after their vacation before they will actually feel rested and refreshed.  We keep seeking after things that will de-stress and rejuvenate us and give us peace, but we never quite seem to get all the way there. 
 
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the rest that He gives to those who are tired and burdened.  He is not talking simply about outward, temporary relaxation bur rather inward, lasting restoration and peace, rest for your souls.  So today, we will be seeking first to identify what it is that makes our souls so weary, and then second, to discover where and how we may obtain this rest which Jesus is speaking about, the true rest which continues forever.
 
What is it that exhausts our souls?  For some it is very simply the stress of fulfilling their many responsibilities in life and all the things you have to deal with as a parent and a spouse and a worker and a volunteer and a caretaker.  The anxiety that comes from doing everything that needs to be done can cause more than just bodily tiredness, it can drain a person's spirit.  For others, it is struggling to live up to the expectations and social pressures of family members or friends that makes them inwardly worn out.  They never feel like they quite measure up.  For many, burdens of the soul can be caused by bodily troubles and sicknesses, which wear a person down mentally and can raise the nagging question, "Why is this happening to me?"  And for still others, spiritual weariness comes from the fact that they've been dragging around a load of guilt with them for years and sometimes even decades.  Some failure or something they deeply regret having done won't leave them alone but seems to hang on to them like a ball and chain.null
 
But in the most ultimate and truest sense, the thing that makes our souls "weary and burdened" is the all-encompassing demands laid on us by God's Law.  Now at first we might think that we can handle God's commands.  "Don't murder.  Don't steal.  Don't commit adultery.  Honor your parents.  Remember the Sabbath Day."  Those aren't always easy, but with a little effort we can usually pull that weight.  But then we learn that there's more to it than that.  "Don't murder" also means that we should help our neighbor in all his physical needs, even to the point of loving our enemies.  "Don't commit adultery" also means that we should constantly honor and love our spouse.  "Don't steal" also means that we should help others to improve and protect their possessions.  That’s a lot heavier load.  And then we discover that we can also break God's commandments in our hearts.  Lust is adultery.  Anger is murder.  Greed is stealing.  Now, it takes all of our might just to drag that burden an inch.  And that's not even the end of it.  We're stopped dead in our tracks, drained of all our strength when God says in His Word, "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."  And, "You, therefore, must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
 
God's Law is like a gigantic boulder to which we are chained.  And He says, "Pull it!  If you want to get to heaven on your own steam, you must drag it all the way there."  And not one of us can.  Our fallenness burdens our conscience and makes life an exhausting spiritual struggle. 
 
So where do we find rest?  The kind of rest we are speaking about is not to be found in a vacation trip or a six-pack or in any other earthly pleasure.  No, in the Gospel Jesus tells us where real, lasting rest is to be found by saying, "Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."  Notice the gift language there.  No purchase necessary.  “I will give you rest.” To those who are weighed down by the burden of anxiety or stress, Jesus says, "Here, let me carry it."  To those who've been dragging around a load of guilt Jesus says, "Here, let me pull it."  To those who've been worn down and worn out by the demands of God's Law Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
 
A yoke, of course, is a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals, like horses or oxen, are joined together for plowing.  So it might seem a bit odd at first that Jesus would invite us to come to Him for rest and then say, "Take my yoke upon you," as if it was not rest He was offering but hard labor.  However, that is clearly not Jesus' intent.  What He is saying rather is, "Stop your exhausting and futile efforts to pull that load alone.  Hook up with me; let me do it."
 
One of the parts of a yoke is a piece called an evener.  This evener can be adjusted so that the stronger of the two animals pulls the heaviest portion of the load.  Well, in our case, the evener is adjusted all the way so that we pull the whole load through Christ and by His strength alone.  For only He has the power to move it.  Only He has the power to fulfill the Law of God and to overcome sin.  We are yoked together with Christ by faith, so that His work counts as our own.  He does all the pulling and we get all the credit.  By His grace Christ joins Himself to us in such a way that His righteousness is our righteousness before God the Father.  Jesus bears the yoke of the cross, and so do we.  But He bears the full burden of it; He’s the One carrying the load.  Christ walks beside us day by day in this world and dwells in us by His holy words and sacraments, that He may live His life through us, a life of faith and love that is well-pleasing to the heavenly Father.
 
You see, Jesus' purpose in coming to this earth was to do for us what we had to do but could not do.  Having taken on Himself our human nature, He, the Son of God, began to live a holy life for us.  He overcame temptation.  He loved and gave of Himself for others.  He fulfilled all the requirements of God's Law.  And then He submitted Himself to a cruel and torturous death in our place in obedience to His heavenly Father.  He dragged the weight of the entire world's sin up the Mount of Calvary.  There He was crucified.  Our sins were paid for that day, nevermore to accuse us, nevermore to burden our souls.  Jesus became weak so that we would be made strong.  He became weary to the point of death so that we would have rest and life.  And now that He has conquered death by His glorious resurrection from the grave, we are made certain that this rest He gives is real and this life He bestows is everlasting.
 
Jesus' invitation to each of you today, then, is to renew your faith in Him, the faith by which you are yoked together with Him.  For when He says, "Come to me," and "Take my yoke upon you," that is the same as His saying, "Believe in me.  Place your confidence in what I've done to save you.  Let your heart take refuge in Me.  Trust in me to help pull you through the struggles of this life."  You were yoked together with Christ already in your baptism, where He said to you, "I have called you by name; you are mine.  I will never leave you or forsake you."  Jesus is walking with you even today, every step of the way, through the high points and the low points, through the good and the bad, so that regardless of your circumstances, you may have His restfulness and His peace in your souls, that peace which passes all understanding.  Christ gives you rest along the way by speaking into your ears His comforting words of absolution.  And He offers you refreshment by placing into your mouths His holy body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, to strengthen you with His real presence, His very life.  
 
That is why the day of the divine service is rightly called the Sabbath Day, the day of rest.  For it is especially in the liturgy that Christ gives you true spiritual rest and recreation.  It is here that the Holy Spirit uses His instruments of life to re-create you and renew you in the image of Christ.  Our Lord will finally lead you from here to the eternal re-creation–the new creation–and to the unending rest and peace and joy which is being prepared for you in heaven.
 
Of course, to the world, this may all seem foolish, even childish.  But remember what Jesus said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babies. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.”  The so-called smart people of this world keep searching for rest in places it cannot be truly found–in the idols of things and people and false spirituality.  Only those who are weak and lowly find real rest in Christ, for He is the One who is gentle and lowly in heart, who comforts the afflicted, who declares sinners to be righteous, who gives rest to the weary and life to the dead.  
 
To conclude, Revelation 14 speaks of heaven and hell in terms of rest.  Of unbelievers, it says this:  "The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night."  But of believers, yoked together with Christ, it says this:  "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth.  Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors."
 
God grant, then, that you who are weary will heed Jesus' invitation and come to Him with trusting hearts.  For He gives you the rest of your life–both in this world and in the one to come.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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