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Watch, Therefore

Last Sunday of the Church Year

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

    We live in a world that loves a comeback story–somebody really messed up their life, or lost badly in sports, or made a terrible decision, or failed at something.  But then instead of that being the end of the story, they change, they turn things around, they humbly learn from their faults and things are made right and good in the end.  Deep down we believe everyone deserves a second chance–for we know how many times we’ve needed second chances.

    And in many ways, that’s very much a Scriptural notion.  We heard in last week’s epistle about how the Lord’s delay in His return is because of His longsuffering patience and His desire that all come to repentance.  He doesn’t want anyone to perish eternally, but for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  We know that parable where even the workers hired at the 11th hour receive the denarius of salvation.  Our God is indeed the God of the second chance, and the third and the fourth and the 490th chance.  He is a God of patience and forgiveness and grace.

    However, there will come a time when 2nd chances will finally run out.  Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins is an example of that.  They only had one opportunity to get it right.  And when the bridegroom comes late, the oil of the foolish has run out, the storekeepers’ shops are closed, and the door to the marriage feast is shut–and there’s no do-overs or turning back the clock.null

    This, then, is one of the messages of today’s Gospel.  We dare never presume upon the grace of the Lord.  What a foolish thing it is to say, “I’ll take the things of God seriously in a few years, later on.  Right now I’ve got to focus on other things.”  Just as foolish is the notion we can put off our repentance.  That is perhaps the most foolish and dangerous thing of all.  If you are willfully clinging to your sin now, willfully putting off repentance until some nebulous future point, what makes you think your heart will suddenly be repentant later?  Resisting the work of the Holy Spirit is a dangerous game.  It numbs the conscience and deadens faith until finally you no longer feel your need for repentance or forgiveness or Jesus at all.

    Now is the time; now is the day of salvation.  Now is the moment for repentance and watching and receiving the Lord’s gifts.  Now is the time to be wise in the midst of this foolish generation.  

    In the Scriptures, wisdom is not equated with a high IQ or great learning. One may be wise without being academically smart.  Many of you have seen this in folks from generations past, who may not have even finished gradeschool, but who had a humble and insightful wisdom that some with doctorates don’t possess today.  In the Bible real wisdom is seeing things–seeing all of life–from God's perspective, having the mind of Christ as St. Paul puts it.  Our Lord tells the story in Matthew 7 of the wise man who builds his house on the rock. Jesus says, “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.”  In other words, the wise man knows that only a life built on the words of Jesus will endure, for even though the heavens and the earth pass away, His words will never pass away.  It is no wonder, then, that Moses prays in Psalm 90 saying, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Moses’ prayer is not simply that we might be smart, but that we might see our fleeting days from God’s perspective.

    Five of the virgins are wise.  They do not live for the moment.  They live as those who have been invited to a most important wedding event.  They do not know at what hour the bridegroom will come and lead them into the wedding hall.  They do not know when the party would begin.  But they know that the bridegroom is on His way and that they are his invited guests.  So their lives are lived toward that wedding.  Nothing else is as important as that event.  So they are prepared for the wait. They check their lamps. They buy extra oil. Their flasks are full.

    No doubt they seemed kind of foolish lugging around those extra jars of oil, sort of like some bad episode of doomsday preppers. Maybe they were called silly for being so concerned with having enough oil for a long wait.  Perhaps they were told to loosen up and have a good time and not to be so extreme or obsessive. Nevertheless, these wise women paid attention to the oil, and when the bridegroom finally arrived, they were prepared. They were ready to take part in the marriage feast.

    It is now too late for the five foolish virgins. The bridegroom arrives and there is no more opportunity to purchase oil. They are unprepared for the feast and unable to enter into the joy of the celebration. The door is shut and they are excluded.

    What does this mean for us? Jesus' own explanation of the parable says it all, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”  Watching does not mean that we should be speculating about the day or the hour.  History is full of failed predictions about the end.  All we are given to know is that Jesus’ return will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, like the flood in Noah’s day, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  All we are given to do is to watch, to be ready, to devote ourselves to the worship of Christ and the receiving of His gifts.  

    To watch is to believe and to hope in His promises.  It is to make Christ and His return what you are living for.  The Word of God is the lamp to our feet and the light to our path.  It is filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit, who makes us wise unto salvation and keeps the flame of faith in Christ burning brightly. To watch is to be vigilant about the things of Christ, the life-giving gifts which He purchased for us with His holy and precious blood.

    A church that ceases to watch will lose the Gospel. A church that becomes lazy or complacent regarding God’s doctrine is in danger of losing the teaching of Christ, falling from faith.  Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes to Pastor Timothy and all pastors: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Tim. 4:16). Our watching is not a gazing up into the heavens, but attentiveness to the voice of our Good Shepherd as He speaks to us in His Word.  We are now living in that evil age which Paul spoke about when he said, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth to wander into myths” (II Tim. 4:3). We are to watch by holding fast God’s Word, hearing it, learning it, and taking it to heart.

    This is the evening of the wedding feast. This is a time when the oil is still available. In fact, there is more than enough oil. For the forgiveness of sins purchased by our Savior through His atoning death on the cross is enough for the whole world, for all of you; it covers every single one of your sins–none left out. There is no shortage of supply in His grace and mercy. This oil of the Holy Spirit is distributed now in the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of Jesus' body and blood in the Holy Supper. The wise cannot get enough of these, for they always give us more of Jesus, and the more we get of Him, the more ready and eager we are to receive Him when He comes again in glory.  And remember that the One who is coming is your Redeemer.  He is the One who in His first coming willingly suffered for you in weakness to break the power of the curse over you. He is the One who loves you and forgives you.  He is the One who comes not in wrath and judgment for you who believe but to bring you the fullness of joy.

    When all is said and done, when we have properly been shaken down to our souls with the urgency of the call to watch and the finality of what will happen on the Day of Christ’s return, we also need to take a deep breath and let it out with a joyous laugh.  Because what we are watching for is a celebration.  The unknown day and hour is not a dreadful time for the faithful; it is the ultimate day of happiness that we eagerly seek and look forward to.  It is the ultimate holiday, the holy Day when the Lord, whom we love and trust in, is revealed, and when we get to be with Him and revel in His presence.  If being reunited with loved ones for the holidays and just spending time together can bring great happiness, how much more will that be true of the return of our Savior?  The Lord who is coming is not like that snooty relative who walks around finding all the flaws in your house and who is eager to give advice on how you should do things better.  Rather He is like the uncle who always brings the funniest gifts and tells the best stories and who you just like hanging around with.  Make no mistake, the One who is coming is your God and your Lord to whom you owe the greatest reverence.  But He has also made Himself to be your flesh and blood.  And so we do indeed need to watch for His coming; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the merriment of the wedding feast.”

    Our waiting, then, is not a fearful thing, but finally a joyful thing.  It is, after all, our Bridegroom who is coming.  And He says to you, “Assuredly, I do know you in your baptism.  More than you have watched for me, I have watched out for you.  My eyes are on you to save you.  I have redeemed you and claimed you as my own.  You are holy and righteous.  What awaits you is a new heaven and a new earth. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more crying. No more pain. All things made new.  Perfect delight.  The fulfillment of your salvation.”  That’s why we sing and pray:

Now come, Thou blessed One,
      Lord Jesus, God's own Son.
Hail! Hosanna! We enter all
the wedding hall
     To eat the Supper at Thy call. (LSB 516:2)

    This divine service is the Last Day in miniature.  I cry out to you, we all cry out to each other, “Wake, awake!  The Bridegroom is here!  Jesus is coming to you in the Holy Sacrament.  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar.  He comes to you in mercy.  Enter into the joy of the wedding feast.”

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

 

Politics and Religion

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

    You know the saying that if you want to avoid conflict with people, you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion.  Well, Jesus was never one to avoid conflict, and the Word of God for today requires us to talk about both politics and religion.  For God is at work in both arenas–in the left hand kingdom of the Law, and in the right hand kingdom of the Gospel.

    For some people, politics is almost a religion in itself; they daily pay attention to the latest news and polls and political talk shows, acting as if everything important hangs on who gets elected–as if Jesus isn’t still at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all and King of kings.  Others are just as religious in avoiding politics altogether; they don’t care to be bothered with what’s going on in government, and they shirk their duties as citizens.

    And it goes the other way, too.  Some are very political in their religion.  They see their religion as a means to accomplish political goals in the kingdoms of this world.  For them being Christian is all about “social justice” or getting certain laws and policies enacted and trying to set up the kingdom of God on this earth, as if sin and evil could be overcome and a perfect world could be established by the right laws and political structures.  But the kingdom of God is not of this fallen world; we know that no utopia can be established that is comprised of and run by sinful human beings.  We are only pilgrims here, this is not our home.  And so while Christians do work for the good of their fellow man in this life, the church is especially about proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ so that people might have eternal life with God.  One of the results of the fall is that we tend to confuse politics and religion and their God-given place in our lives.null

    That certainly happens in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees try to entangle Jesus in His talk.  They don’t like many of the things He’s been saying, so they see if they can trip Him up and cause Him problems publicly–sort of like a questioner at a political debate trying to make a candidate say something that will cause him to look foolish or lose popularity.  

    The Pharisees, who were very serious religious types, get together with some Herodians, who were political types, supporters of King Herod and the Roman political structure.  The Pharisees had nothing in common with the Herodians except that they both wanted to get rid of Jesus–politics makes strange bedfellows.  After trying to flatter Jesus, they asked the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Of course, here’s the trap.  If Jesus says “no,” it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of treason against Rome and the political Herodians would be the first to report Him.  If Jesus says “yes,” it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of disloyalty to Israel, and the religious Pharisees could use that to turn the common people against Him.

    They must have thought they were pretty smart; they must have thought they had Jesus cornered.  Just as we like to think we’re pretty smart, too, the way we can turn everything into a complicated ethical dilemma as soon as the Word of God starts getting a little too close for comfort and condemning us for our sin.  We’re good at changing the subject or coming up with questions about the latest issue of the day that distract from the main issues of repentance and forgiveness, of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us.   Don’t play tricks with God; don’t try to avoid His words to you with the clever language of lawyers and loopholes.  He knows the way you try to evade Him and who He is and what He says.

    Repent.  Jesus will not be distracted.  He will not be caught in men’s feeble traps.  He asks the Pharisees and the Herodians to show Him the tax money.  And He says to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”  They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”  The coin had a portrait of Tiberias on the one side, and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other.  The inscription declared Tiberias to be the great ruler.  Then Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at His words and went their way.  You get the sense that Jesus wants to get beyond mere politics to the ral business of theology, the things of God.

    But first things first.  Politics does have its place.  Romans 13 says that God has established those who are in civil authority, whomever they might be.  Therefore, we are to honor them, pray for them, follow the laws of the land–as long as they do not cause us to sin–and yes, we are to pay our taxes.  No Christian says that since God is his King, he doesn’t have to obey earthly rulers.  God has given them their authority, even if they don’t use it wisely, whether we like them or not, whether they’re Christian or not.  Tiberias was a pagan and no believer.  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  

    Now if the civil authorities try to cause us to sin–to deny His Word in some way, to do things that are morally wrong or that go against our faith in Christ, then we are duty bound to disobey Caesar.  We only honor Caesar for God’s sake.  And if Caesar wants us to deny the God who gave him his civil authority, we must obey God rather than men, as Peter says in the book of Acts.  And so we don’t submit to Caesar’s sinful definition of marriage just because it’s “the law of the land”; we don’t endorse the legal expendability of life in the womb, and we will do nothing whatsoever that condones or supports those things.  But even then, if the day comes when the church is persecuted for standing firm for her beliefs, we recognize that God is even at work there.  He works all things, even the evils of ungodly government for our eternal good, for the purification of the church and for the strengthening of our confession of the faith.  The church has always been strongest in times of persecution, when living at odds with the world.  For God accomplishes His greatest good through suffering, most especially through the cross of our Lord Jesus.

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

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

    But also remember this.  You do not give yourself to God.  You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of the invisible God Himself according to Colossians 1.  The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just as an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh.  And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice. Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood.  And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself.  It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  There is Jesus on His throne for you.

    You see, when it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins.  So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him.  It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation.  He alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.”  To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.

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

    For we know that we are now citizens of heaven.  We are as foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life.    You are citizens of this country only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity.  Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country.  Let your highest attachment not be to the American flag but to the holy cross.  Let that be the real joy and delight of your hearts.  St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”  By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation on the day of resurrection, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection.  Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world.  Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    Let us, therefore, render unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His.  Let us above all else, give allegiance to the eternal Father, and to Jesus who is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, holding to His saving Word and to our catechism and creeds which faithfully confess that Word.  Let us raise up the holy crucifix of Christ as our great flag, the banner of salvation.  For though it is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, Christ’s cross remains the power of God and the wisdom of God and the only way to enter His everlasting, unshakable kingdom.

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

Saved From Sin's Slavery Through Christ Alone


John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28
Reformation

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

    “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  Martin Luther knew well the meaning of those words.  He knew what it was like under the old papal system to feel enslaved to the Law, to be in captivity to his sins and unable to set himself free.  The thing he most felt was the burden of an angry God on his back, driving him, demanding a holy life and penance for sin.  So much did he want to escape his slavery that, instead of a becoming a lawyer like his father wanted, he thought becoming a monk might do the job.  If he just devoted himself fully to being righteous and worshiping God, perhaps then he could break free and the shackles would come off.  But things didn’t get better; in some ways constantly being reminded of the demands of a righteous God, constantly going to confession under the requirement of confessing every single sin only caused him to feel his chains all the more.  This attempt at righteousness by his own efforts and works became a torture.  “Whoever commits sin a slave of sin.”

    The same thing is true for us, too; only we tend to experience this in an opposite way.  In our culture, the wrath of an angry God isn’t what runs the show.  For us it’s the absence of any wrath at all that’s runs things, spiritual permissiveness, being free to do as we please.  And that supposed freedom is where we experience our slavery.  For the sins that we enjoy promise us freedom and happiness, but they only ensnare us and bind us and imprison us in the long run.  Our desires and passions end up ruling us.  The technologies that make us feel like we’re lords of our own lives end up being what we serve, what we chain ourselves to for hours a day.  Gluttony enslaves us to our belly and our food, as does alcoholism to drink.  Lust enslaves us to our passions, to pornography, to adulterous behavior that tears people apart.  Laziness enslaves us in a cycle of dependency and pessimism and excuse-making and blame.  Gossiping enslaves us to the never-ending game of one-upsmanship, and really only ends up tearing everyone down, including the gossiper.  Greed enslaves us to our possessions and all the things we have to do to get and hold on to our stuff.  Pride chains us to having to keep up our image and prop up the facade, when deep down we know it’s just hypocrisy.  And on and on it goes . . .  We may not be running for the monastery like Luther, but we, too, often find ourselves grasping at straws because we know that things aren’t right with us, that we’re not truly free.  “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  And the wages of sin is death. null

    Repent.  God doesn’t just accept your best efforts as being sufficient to make yourself right with Him.  He doesn’t just say, “Try your hardest, be sincere, do what is in you, and that’s good enough.”  What does His Word say?  “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  It is a misuse of the Law to try to justify yourself.  We can often be successful in justifying ourselves and our behavior before others in this world.  But that just won’t fly before God.  Besides, if you’re trying to do a good deed so that you can get some sort of reward for yourself–in this world or the next–is that really a good work at all in God’s sight?  What did the Epistle say?  It said the purpose of the Law is “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the Law no flesh [no one] will be justified in [God’s] sight.”  You can’t free yourself from the slavery of sin by your own doing.

    So what is our only hope of being saved and set free?  St. Paul writes in the Epistle, Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Pay close attention to those words.  Don’t let them become passe’ because it’s familiar Lutheran talk.  You are justified freely by His grace–freely!  God grant that we never lose our gratitude for that!  It’s a gift of God to you, without any strings attached.  That’s what grace is, an undeserved gift of love.  God justifies you, He declares you righteous, He puts you right with Himself solely and completely based on the works of Christ Jesus His Son–not what you have done for God but what Christ has done for you.  

    And here is in particular is what Christ has done for you: the Epistle says that the Lord Jesus redeemed you.  In other words, He bought you back.  He found you in your slave chains, being driven and abused by sin and Satan, and He asserted Himself as your rightful owner, your gracious Master.  He purchased you out of your slavery with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He went so far as to trade places with you.  He allowed Himself to be enslaved, captured and condemned as if He were the sinner, guilty of every wrong that’s ever been done and every failure to do what’s right.  He was your stand-in on the cross to set you free, so that you stand in His place in “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).  Through His death, Jesus conquered your slave masters so that they have no eternal power over you any more.  In the Son of God, Jesus, you are truly free–released, forgiven, alive–as Jesus Himself said, “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”

    Martin Luther puts it this way in the Large Catechism: “The Lord Jesus has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before, I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.  For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved.  There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us.  Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.”

    This is where Martin Luther finally found his liberty.  Before, he had understood the righteousness of God to be referring to God’s righteous demands on us, what we must do to get into God’s good graces.  But then, when studying the Scriptures, he came to understand the truth of the Gospel in Romans 1, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes . . .  for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  In other words, the Gospel makes known the righteousness of God, not as demands on you, but as a gift to you.  God gives you His righteousness, so that through faith in Christ, you are clean and guiltless in His sight.  Believe that.  God declares it to be so through Jesus and what He has done for you.

    That understanding of the Gospel, which had largely been lost, made all the difference for Luther.  And so began the Reformation and the restoration of the Gospel to its rightful place in the Church, a heritage we are beneficiaries of down to this very day.

    We summarize this belief with the four so-called “solas” of the Reformation: Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone.  Eternal life and a right relationship with God are a pure gift of His grace alone, not because of anything we have done.  We receive that grace by faith alone, apart from our decisions and spiritual efforts.  Our faith is in Christ alone and in no one and nothing else.  And God brings us to faith and keeps us in the faith through His life-giving Word alone and not by anything that comes from within us; all our teaching comes from Scripture and not man-made wisdom or tradition.  To sum this all up, all the glory for our salvation belongs not to us but to God and His abundant mercy.  All boasting on our part is excluded.  Romans 3 states, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [in Christ] apart from the deeds of the Law.”

    So hear the Word of God to you this day clearly: you have been set free in Jesus.  And remember, then, what you have been freed for: You are freed from slavery to sin so that you might have a new life, the life of Christ in the household of God.  Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”  To abide in Jesus’ word is to continue to receive His Word in the many ways that it comes to you and find your life in it.  It is to live in the gift of your baptism, where the Word of God was applied to you with the water, drowning the old Adam and bringing you forth to a new life.  It is to hear the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, by which the Word is applied to you and its gifts are given to you.  And it is to receive the Lord’s Supper, where the Word made flesh is truly present, giving you His flesh and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  Our freedom from sin’s slavery is freedom for life with God.  That’s what we set our hearts on; that’s our goal: to be with the One who made us and redeemed us, to live in fellowship with Him, to bask in His presence, to glory in His gifts to us, to worship Him forever.

    The Reformation was about standing against anything that stood in the way of that: whether it’s the Pope with His man-centered works-righteousness, or whether it’s radical reformed churches that reject the words and promises of Christ in the sacraments and instead make it all about man-centered personal spiritual experiences.  False teaching on both sides had to be rejected.  No, Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”  The Word in the water, the Word proclaimed from the pulpit, the Word in the bread and wine.  Abide in this, continue in this, trust in this, and you are Christ’s disciple, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free–free children of God who will abide in His house forever.

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

Created By the Word

Genesis 1:1 - 2:3
Trinity 21

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

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” All things have a beginning except God.  He alone is eternal and uncreated.  We reject the evolutionist belief that the stuff of this universe has always been here and somehow formed itself into what we see now.  For then we would be declaring the universe to be eternal, making a god out of creation rather than the Creator.  That is the very definition of idolatry.

    The God who created all things out of nothing is the Triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–three eternal Persons in one divine Being.  Even in the beginning, we have a glimpse of God in His three-in-oneness. The Father creates. The Word of the Son is spoken. The Spirit of God hovers over the water. The Father creates through the Word, His Son, and He does it by the Holy Spirit who is in and with the water. You can see here that creation and baptism are intimately connected with one another.  Both are beginnings, creation and new creation, the work of the Father through the Son in the Spirit with the water.

    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. “Let there be light,” the Word says, “and there was light.” The Word is powerful and creative.  He brings about what He says.  Through the Word all things were made–water and sky, plants and trees, fish and birds, animals and man. 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 were created through the Son of God but that in Him all things hold together still.  Jesus is the Logos, 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 Him.  

    One of the many reasons we reject the theory of evolution, then, is because it’s opposed to this Scriptural truth of the centrality of Christ.  It imagines that all this beauty and order and life can be produced by chance random processes, that chaos can order itself, without any person doing the designing and organizing and sustaining.  To use a familiar example: if I were to say that an auto assembly plant exploded, and out of that Big Bang, after a long, long time, came a perfectly assembled car, you’d think I was a little nuts.  And yet what evolution proposes is infinitely more improbable than that; for our eyes, our brains, our DNA are vastly more complex in their design than a car.  Not only does evolution fail to say where all the stuff in the universe came from (which is no small matter); the key question that evolution has yet to explain is:  how can life come from something that’s not alive, as evolution proposes?  Such a thing has never ever been done in the laboratory in even the most rudimentary way.  We know that life only comes from another living thing, and that the Source of all life is God.  The fact that there are similarities among living things is not a sign that we have the same ancestors, but that we have the same Creator.  Our God is like a great artist who in His creatures shows a definite style to His work.  

    Of course, there are some who try to embrace both sides of the debate:  Believe in God and believe in evolution.  They propose that God created all things through the process of evolution.  But that is mere fantasy and a delusion when compared to Scripture.  For not only do the time frames not work–7 ordinary days of evening and morning vs. billions and billions of years–but the way in which all life, especially human life, comes into being couldn’t be more different.  For the evolutionist, to get to human beings like you and me, death has to be in existence right from the start.  It’s a necessary factor in the process of only the strong surviving and supposedly developing into higher and higher forms of life.  There’s all sorts of death and bloodshed before human beings ever come on the scene.  But there is no death at all in Genesis 1 and 2, not even among the animals.  Full-fledged human beings are present before there is any death.  What does Scripture say? “The wages of sin is death.”  First God creates human beings, and then there’s death after they fall into sin.  Evolution turns that Scriptural truth completely upside down and replaces it with a lie.  For by denying that death is the wages of sin, it denies the need for a Savior from sin.  It denies Christ.  It undermines the Gospel which says that Christ took the wages of death upon Himself to free us from the curse of sin when He died in our place on the cross.  Denying the Biblical narrative of creation undermines and contradicts belief in Jesus.  For Jesus is the creative Word made flesh who alone breaks the curse of sin on this fallen world by His death and resurrection and brings the new creation.

    It is only after the fall of mankind in the Garden that we see and experience death and disorder and decay all around us. It is written, “The whole creation groans.” The groanings can be heard in the earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes and fires that turn order into a pile of disordered rubble. Many creatures no longer multiply as they once did. Species go extinct.  Weeds grow in our garden. Our attempts to rule over and use this creation often end up harming creation.
    
    Above all, we see that death and disorder in ourselves.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, turned away from God’s creative and ordering Word and believed the father of lies, who said that God is not to be trusted.  The Lie turned the creature against the Creator.  Turned inward on ourselves, the image of God is broken in us.  There is disorder in our homes and our relationships with others.  There is disorder in our hearts, where what we desire and what we know is right are  in conflict.  There is disorder in our bodies, where sickness and bodily ailments take their toll, leaving us finally in the disordered dust of the grave.  

    This is how it is.  The Word brings life.  The Lie brings death.  The Word says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  The Lie says, “Children are a burden, not a blessing.  Better not have too many.  Separate the sexual relationship from the creation of life.”  The Word says, “The two shall become one flesh.”  The Lie says, “You don’t need God to join you together in the life of marriage to have sex.  Follow your heart’s desires and needs and passions.”  The Word says, “Male and female He created them.”  The Lie says, “Male and male is fine; female and female is fine.  People should be free to love whomever they want, even to live according to whatever gender they choose.”  The Word says, “Have dominion over creation; fill the earth and subdue it.  Continue God’s creative and ordering work.”  The Lie says, “Human beings have no more right to life than the animals, perhaps even less than they do.”  The Word says, “God is your Father; you shall be as He is.”  The Lie says, “The animals are your ancestors; you shall behave as they do.”  The Lie says, “You’re fine just the way you are; no need to change.”  The Word says, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”  

    And here is that Gospel: Just as He did in the very beginning, yet again 2000 years ago God spoke His Word into the chaos and darkness of this fallen world.  The Father spoke His Word by the Spirit to a young girl named Mary, and the creative Word was made Flesh in her womb. The creative and ordering Word who made all things and set them in order in the beginning was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary in the person of Jesus.

    Jesus entered this world bearing our humanity to set things in order once again, to battle the darkness and the disorder. He healed the diseased. He cast out demons. He brought mercy and forgiveness to tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, calling them out of darkness into His marvelous light.  He brought order to our disordered humanity.  He undid the damage of the Lie and took the curse of the Law against our rebellion.  Jesus took into Himself the disorder and the darkness and the decay and the death and He put it all to death in His body on the cross.

    When Jesus rose bodily from the grave on the first day of the week, a new creation dawned. It is the chief reason that Sunday is called the Lord’s Day in the new testament. The resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation. Just as light first shone into the darkness on the first day of the old creation, so the light of Christ broke through the darkness of our death on the first day of the week. A new creation has broken in even as this old one is passing away.

    And the creation account itself in Genesis actually foretells and foreshadows this saving work of Christ.  For 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.  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, which literally shook at His death, 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.

    Man was created on the sixth day, and then God rested on the seventh.  In Jesus who is 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.  For from Him flows mercy and forgiveness and life.  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 body and soul to live in the joys of God’s presence.

    And again, all of this is accomplished by the words of God.  He speaks, and it is so.  “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Jesus says to the nobleman in the Gospel, “Your son lives,” and indeed he lives and is well.  Jesus’ Word accomplishes what it says.  And so it is for you.  Jesus speaks His Word to you, and His Word creates what He says.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  And your hearts and minds are stilled and calmed.  “I forgive you all your sins.”  And your sins are truly removed from you as far as the east is from the west.  “This is My body; this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And indeed, 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.  God’s creative Word is still in effect for you.  Like the nobleman in the Gospel, trust in that Word.  Cling to it.  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 ✠

(The first paragraphs above are adapted from a sermon by the Rev. William Cwirla.)

Hearts, Mouths, Ears, and Feet

Romans 10:9-17
Trinity 12

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

    Frequently I have preached to you about how, as Christians, our most important sense is our sense of hearing.  We’re all about the ears, not the eyes.  For we walk by faith in God’s words, not by sight or experience.  And words first and foremost are heard.  They’re spoken with the mouth and listened to with the ears.  You could come into divine service blindfolded and not really miss a thing, especially if you know the liturgy by heart.  The main thing here is the speaking and the hearing.  Educators like to point out how learning is best achieved by involving as many senses as you can in the process.  And of course that is true.  However, we’re not simply talking about learning here, but about faith, the trust of the heart.  And the Epistle states it very straightforwardly, “Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.”  

    We do use all five of our senses when we are gathered for divine service.  There is the smell of the candles and the wine, even incense in churches that use it.  Our sense of touch and taste are involved, too, in the Sacraments.  Though even then, what is it that makes Baptism or the Lord’s Supper what they are but the spoken Word of God?  Likewise, we do have enduring visual imagery here that is drawn directly from God’s Word, like the cross and the icons (though nothing so shallow as video screens with their fleeting and sometimes manipulative images).  But we never put our trust simply in what we see.  We trust in what we hear–the sure words and promises of God which never fail, which most assuredly bring about what they declare.null

    So it’s an interesting statement that we hear in today’s Epistle, when the Apostle Paul quotes the words of Isaiah, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace.”  You could understand if he said, “How beautiful is the voice” or “How beautiful is the mouth.”  But instead he says “feet.”  What do feet have to do with it?  

    We don’t usually think of feet as beautiful.  They get calloused and dirty and smelly sometimes.  And consider your feet also in a spiritual sense.  How often have you “voted with your feet” against hearing or learning or following Christ’s Word?  How often have you used your feet to keep your distance from those around you who are in need?  How often have you run with those feet to share the latest bit of juicy gossip? How often have you used those feet to storm away from your spouse or your parents in anger? How often have you strutted around with your feet in pride or just kicked them up on the couch in laziness?  No, our feet are not beautiful.  Just as Adam and Eve were marched out of the Garden when they sinned, so God’s judgment on our rebellion is that we are driven out and cannot step foot in His presence.

    But thankfully, there is One who walked in our shoes for us, who has human feet just like us, though He Himself is without sin.  The beautiful feet Isaiah refers to, first and foremost, are the feet of Jesus.  These are the feet of God’s Son, who was born with ten little toes just like the rest of us. These are the feet that stepped into the water of the Jordan River to be baptized for you. These are the feet of Him who walked from town to town preaching the kingdom of God and healing the sick, even walking right into a funeral procession to raise a widow’s son.  These are feet of the One who spoke mercy to sinners, feet that became so beautiful to a sinful woman that she washed them with her tears and hair!  These are the feet that stood before the religious leaders and the Roman Governor when Jesus was on trial. These are the feet that stumbled as they carried the cross to Calvary. And there, on that mountain, behold the beautiful feet, pierced with nails, fastened to the cross–all this to bring you the Good news that your sins are forgiven. His feet and hands and side and brow are pierced for you, for your sins. His blood washes it all away and cleanses you.  Your sins are wiped out once and for all.  The price has been fully paid.  With His feet Jesus has crushed the devil’s head and ground the power of the grave to powder.  In Jesus there is peace between you and God. How beautiful indeed are those holy feet of Jesus that walked this earth on their way to the cross for your salvation!

    And it gets better still.  For these feet of Jesus, that lay cold and lifeless in the tomb, walked again when He rose from the grave in glory.  And these feet of Jesus, that Mary Magdalene clung to at the empty tomb, were planted firmly on the mountain in Galilee where Jesus said to the eleven, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  Jesus, who had washed the disciples feet, was now sending them on their way to use their feet to bring the good news of salvation to every nation and language and people.  

    This is also what the Epistle reading is speaking of, then, when it refers to the beautiful feet.  It all starts with the beautiful feet of Jesus; but He sends out others in His name, that by His grace their feet may become beautiful, too, as they go and preach the Gospel and bring the gifts of Christ to His people.  

    “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Scripture says.  However, Paul reminds us that you can’t call on the name of the Lord if you don’t believe in Him.  So if there is going to be calling on the Lord, there must be believing in the Lord.  But you can’t believe in a Lord that you’ve never heard of or learned about properly. So before there can be believing in the Lord, there must be a hearing of the Lord’s words.  But you can’t hear the Lord’s words without someone preaching and teaching them to you.  So before there can be hearing the Lord’s words, there must be a preacher.  But you can’t be a preacher without being sent by Lord.  So before there can be preachers and missionaries, there must be the means by which the Lord’s sends out men, calling them and ordaining them for the task.  You see, it all starts with the sending.  First Jesus is sent by the Father to redeem the world.  Then Jesus sends His apostles to proclaim the good news, and through His church He continues to send preachers and ministers.  That’s why it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace.”  Saving faith that calls on the Lord’s name is traced back to the feet and the Lord’s sending.  It’s about Him, not the messenger.

    In our age of the Postal Service and UPS trucks and the internet, we forget the importance in ancient times of couriers who could carry a message with their feet over many miles.  Especially someone bringing good news from far away would refresh the souls of those who heard it and bring joy to their hearts.  You can imagine in that context how someone might praise the feet of the messenger as much as his speaking.  In fact the distance race we now know as the marathon comes from a Greek legend where a soldier was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated.  It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping and burst into the assembly, exclaiming “We have won.”  This is in a very real sense what the preaching of the Gospel is, an announcement that we have won in Christ; the enemy has been defeated.  Now in the Greek legend, the messenger then immediately collapsed and died.  And I suppose there would be no more blessed way for a pastor to die, after proclaiming the Gospel.  But this is the good news, that the One who died now lives.  And that is why we have won.  The risen Jesus holds the field forever.

    So a preacher’s feet are only beautiful because they have been washed by Christ’s mercy, and because he is now given to proclaim the glad tidings and distribute the good things of Jesus.  I remember a seminary professor once telling us seminarians to think about what the people see when they come to take holy communion.  He reminded us that what they see with their heads bowed at the altar rail are the pastor’s feet.  His advice was more practical than theological–he told us to make sure, therefore, that our shoes were always clean and polished for the service.  That’s fine advice, I suppose, which I should probably follow more often.  But the theological point is the key thing: When you see any minister’s feet, remember the feet of Jesus that walked this earth for you, that bled for you, the feet of Him who sent out His ministers to proclaim the Gospel of peace, to give out the body and blood that purchased your peace.  

    That’s how it works: from the feet of Jesus to the feet of preachers, who deliver the Gospel into your ears so that you may confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from dead and be saved.  “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news!”  And fellow believers, today you are given to do just as the women did at the empty tomb and cling to Jesus’ beautiful, risen feet.  For the heavenly Christ makes this earthly altar to be His footstool.  Come and worship the risen Jesus; He is truly alive; He is truly here.  Receive His life-giving body and blood for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  Share in His victory.  We have won.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Mark Beutow for some of the beautiful feet material above)

The Things that Make for Your Peace

Luke 19:41-48
Trinity 10

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

    We’re always looking for what will bring us peace and contentment and happiness.  We try to find it in getting stuff, in having that relationship we’ve always sought, in our work, in hobbies and vacation trips, in a pill, in some new philosophy of life or some new diet or workout.  But it always seems to be just out of reach.  For real peace comes only through communion with God in Christ Jesus.  

    The name Jerusalem literally means “city of peace.”  “Salem” in Jerusalem is a form of the word “Shalom,” “peace.”  So there is clearly a sad irony in Jesus’ words when He says, “If you had known, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  The Prince of Peace had come to them.  But the city of peace did not recognize or receive Him.null

    And so as our Lord is about to enter Jerusalem for the last time before His death, He weeps over her.  He cries as a parent cries who sees that his child has gone wrong.  He cries as a husband cries over the wife that has rejected him for another.  He weeps out of love for His people who were blind to who He was and what He had come to give them.  Our Lord is not a cold, dispassionate, detached person.  Not only did He take on our flesh and blood but also our soul and spirit and mind and emotions.  His heart aches when His people turn away from Him.

    Jesus laments over what is going to happen to them.  In the year 70 A.D., just forty years after this Gospel, Jesus’ prophetic words were fulfilled.  Jerusalem was attacked and laid siege by the Romans.  Hundreds of thousands were killed or died from famine and plague.  Those not worth anything to the empire were executed, adult and child alike; their dead bodies piled up to block the lanes and the streets of the city.  The strong men were kept alive and forced to work in mines or become slaves.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that 97,000 young men were taken away as slaves.  He also reports that Titus, the emperor Vespasian’s son, sent a great number of captives into the Roman provinces, as a present to them, that they might be destroyed in their theaters and coliseums, by the sword and by the wild beasts.  Above all, the temple was utterly destroyed and laid waste.  All that is left of the temple still today is the wailing wall.

    This was the judgment of God.  The Romans were His instrument in executing the sentence.  For Israel had rejected the Messiah.  They did not know the time of their visitation, when God Himself visited them and walked among them.  It was their day, and they missed it.  The things that made for their peace with God were hidden from their eyes by their own unbelief.  The weeping of God eventually becomes the judgment of God for those who will not repent.

    Now it’s not as if the Jews weren’t religious.  St. Paul says in the Epistle, “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.  For they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God” in Christ.  They were passionate for God, but they tried to get right with Him on the basis of their own keeping of God’s Law.  They foolishly trusted in their own obedience and holiness rather than humbly and penitently relying on the grace of God revealed to them in Christ and receiving His righteousness as a free and undeserved gift.  And so they ended up rejecting the very one their Law prophesied.  All their religious passion was for nothing.  They wanted something flashier and more glorious than this lowly Jesus.  In fact it offended them to think that’s how God would visit them.  They stumbled at this stumbling stone of the Gospel, and so the stones of the temple and the city were demolished around them.  Their lives were taken from them.

    This is a clear and sobering call to repentance for you still today.  For it shows that God’s judgment is real and is nothing to be trifled with.  What happened to the Jews in Jerusalem in the 1st century is a miniature picture of what will happen to all the unbelieving world on judgment day.  Consider, then, how things stand with you.  Are you passionate about moral topics and the social decay of our nation, but ho-hum about learning Scriptural doctrine and the Gospel of Christ crucified and studying God’s Word?  Are you relying on your own religious efforts and praying and obedience to bring you into God’s favor rather than Christ alone?  Then your religion is like the false, man-centered religion of the Jews, and you must repent.  Do you look for God primarily in mysterious signs or supernatural occurrences instead of in His humble but sure Word?  Is divine service something that has become passe’, that you could do without for weeks at a time?  Then you are like the Israelites who did not know the time of their visitation; you aren’t seeing how God Himself visits you in the scandalously lowly means of preaching and the sacraments, and you must repent.  Are you one who wants to use religion as a means of personal gain or as a way of getting God to bless you financially?  Then you are like those who bought and sold in the temple, and you must repent.

    Turn away from all that, and turn to Him whose heart still weeps out of love for His people.  Trust in Him who continues to cry out, “If you would know, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  Christ Himself is your Peace.  He is the One who brings reconciliation between you and God, the One who gives the peace that passes all understanding.  This is your day, the day of your visitation, as it is written, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”  This is the moment in which Christ is coming to you in His Gospel sounding in your ears.  Believe in Him; trust in what He has done; seek His righteousness.

    For our Lord has cleansed the temple.  When Jesus drove out the moneychangers in righteous anger and purified the temple as a house of prayer, that was a sign of what He was about to do at Calvary.  For there on the cross Jesus Himself experienced the righteous anger of God against the world’s sin and drove it out in the temple of His own body.  Jesus made Himself unclean in your place.  He took all of the greed and the self-righteousness and the pollution of every sin that you’ve done or that has been done to you, and He made it His own dirty mess.  By His holy suffering and death He took it away from you and cleansed it from you forever.  

    Jesus had said of His body, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Though the temple in Jerusalem remains destroyed, Jesus could not remain in the grave.  He is now bodily raised in everlasting glory and honor, the new and eternal dwelling place of God for you.  Jesus is your temple.  The risen body of Christ is full of holiness and righteousness and cleansing.  Baptized into Him, those things are all yours.  You are now the body of Christ.  And therefore you are the temple of Christ’s Spirit, who dwells in you through your baptismal faith. You are safe from divine judgment.  For you are in Him who took the judgment for you.

    Brothers and sisters in Christ, God is coming to visit, both now and on the Last Day.  That is bad news for the unrepentant, for those who want something more than Jesus and His undeserved grace.  God’s visitation means judgment for the unbelieving.  But for you who believe, it is the greatest good news.  “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  But you do know.  This is your day; this is the time of your visitation!  Here are the things that make for your peace, the body and blood of Christ, offered up for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your peace, for your rest, for your restoration to the Father.  God grant you always to be like that faithful remnant in the Gospel that were very attentive to hear Jesus, so that by His grace you may be brought to dwell eternally in the new Jerusalem above.

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

Wasting the Master's Goods

Luke 16:1-13
Trinity 9

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

    Back in my seminary days, I took a class on the Gospel of Luke.  Each of us pastors-to-be were assigned a passage from Luke that would show up in the Sunday readings; we were to make a presentation on it so that we could help each other prepare to preach on these texts.  I was assigned today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the unjust steward.  I really struggled to fully understand what this passage was trying to say, and so I remember beginning my presentation by saying to my fellow seminarians, “When the Sunday comes when this is the Gospel reading, it might be a good idea to preach on the Old Testament reading or the Epistle.”  I don’t think my presentation that day was particularly helpful to anyone.  Today I’ll try to make up for that a bit.

    The reason this Gospel reading is hard to understand at first is because the one Jesus praises and holds up as an example is a man who mismanaged his master’s goods, and then he cheated the master out of what the people owed him so that they would treat him favorably and give him room and board after he’s fired.  What is Jesus’ point?null

    We should begin by asking whom does the steward represent?  First of all, he represents us according to our old Adam, who have been poor stewards of the goods of the Master, the things the Lord has entrusted to us.  Have we always used the money and talents and possessions that we’ve received from God to serve our neighbor and to help build up the Church and the ministry of the Gospel?  And when we have done that (because we know it’s the right thing to do), has there still been a struggle against the flesh which wants to use our resources for other things?  ($100 seems a lot bigger in the offering plate than it does at state fair, doesn't it.)  Or in our stewardship as parents and grandparents, have we encouraged our children’s devotion more to sports and extracurricular activities or their devotion to the Word of God, pleasing their peers or pleasing the Lord?  Are we more concerned about their making a good living or having eternal life?  And when we’re faced with a situation in life where following God’s Word means taking a financial hit, do we justify not following God’s Word?  The truth is, if we were called before the Lord to give an account of our stewardship, to lay out not only our bank statements but also the dreams and desires and motivations of our hearts, there also would be cause for us to be dismissed from our stewardship.

    However, I would suggest that in a deeper sense, the steward in the parable actually represents Christ Himself, the eternal One who is the manager of the heavenly Father’s goods.  For remember what occurred right before today’s Gospel.  Jesus had just finished telling the story of the prodigal son; He had just been accused of wasting His time and efforts on tax collectors and sinners, throwing away His “goods,” mercy and forgiveness, the Father’s goods, on people such as that.  And now He tells a parable about a steward who was supposedly mismanaging goods.  Do you see?  He’s talking about Himself and the way things are in the kingdom of God.

    For what does the steward do?  He goes around to everyone forgiving debt!  To the one who owes 100 measures of oil, his bill is reduced to 50.  And to the one who owes 100 measures of wheat, his bill is reduced to 80.  The steward desires to be received by them, and the way that happens is by forgiveness, by debts being cut and taken away.

    This is the way of Jesus.  He comes to us as one who “mismanages” the Father’s goods, throwing away God’s mercy and forgiveness on us.  It doesn’t matter to Jesus that He’s accused of giving away God’s grace too cheaply.  After all, His grace is not cheap, it’s free, since He purchased it for us at the greatest cost of His own blood!  Jesus’ mission was to bear every accusation, to take all that we are justly accused of and make full payment for our debts.  Jesus made eternal friends of us, not by hoarding things for Himself, but by living as one with no home of his own, no place to lay his head.  The material things of this world He used entirely in the service of others, having nothing but literally the clothes on His back.  He became poor so that we might know and receive the riches of His mercy.  He even gave away His own body into death, that through His atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice we might be cleansed from all unrighteousness.

    Jesus the Steward desires to be received by us, into our homes and into our hearts.  That doesn’t happen by some decision or commitment that we make; it comes by the forgiveness and the release from the debt of sin that He freely gives.  Jesus has done much more than cut your bill by 20% or even 50%.  He’s taken care of it all.  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  All of it.  You are debt-free toward God in Christ.  Repent and believe that Gospel.

    Which brings us to one more important point about the steward in the parable–his faith.  Jesus praised him not only because he was shrewd, but also because he trusted in his master’s mercy.  That’s the key.  He believed that the same master who didn’t have him thrown into prison for wasting his possessions (when he could have) would also be merciful to him by honoring the debts he reduced (which the master didn’t have to).  The steward knew what sort of a gracious and good master he had, and that’s where he put his hope.  He believed his master to be a man of generosity and forgiveness, and he staked his salvation and his future on that.  So it’s not just the steward’s shrewdness, but it is the faith in the master’s mercy that is praised here.

    So also, you are called to trust that the Father is a God of mercy who will forgive your debts through Christ, that you may be received into an everlasting home.  We stake our salvation and our future on the generosity and forgiveness of our God.  It is that faith God desires and praises.  We believe that God the Father will be merciful to us for the sake of Jesus–just as Jesus relied on His Father’s mercy and trusted in Him even on the cross.  Jesus believed that the Father would honor His death in our place to cover what we owed and that He would raise Him up on the third day.

    And now Jesus has ordained stewards to stand in His place, to distribute the eternal blessings He has won by His death and resurrection.  Jesus commends His stewards when they “squander” His possessions in the ministry of the Holy Gospel and cancel the debts you owe Him.  That is the job of a pastor–to be a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:5), to the take the Master’s goods and give them away.  Whenever you hear the Gospel and the absolution, it’s as if I am asking you, “What does your bill say?  What impossible debt do you owe because of your sin?  Sit down, take your bill, and write 0, paid in full.”  You are all squared up with God in Christ–and then some.

    Living in that faith, you are freed to be shrewd like the steward in the parable, not using mammon only to make friends in this life, but putting unrighteous mammon to use to make eternal friends in the fellowship of the Gospel, supporting the mission of the church in your offerings and in your estate planning, investing in the things that will last into eternity, using the things of this life with an eye toward the life of the world to come, desiring to be received by your fellow saints into the everlasting home prepared for you by Christ.

    Here in divine service, unrighteous mammon, ordinary stuff is put to a righteous use, as wood and stone and lights and microphones and cloth are put to use in proclaiming the redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.  And particularly in the Sacraments do we see this.  Temporal water is combined with the Name of God in Baptism to become a sacred anointing and a cleansing from sin.  Ordinary words become the vehicle for delivering to you the extraordinary absolution from the Lord.  Common bread and wine are consecrated to be the holy, eternal body and blood of Christ, given and shed for your forgiveness.  Especially here in this place, the things of this world are sanctified by the Lord’s Word, so that sinners are made to be saints, fallen people are made to be the very body of Christ.  Here the Lord’s people make friends in Him, those with whom you will be received into an everlasting home.

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

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