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The Unjust Steward

Luke 16:1-13

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

Today's parable has a surprise ending. You’ve heard the parable before, so perhaps it doesn’t seem so striking.  But imagine you’re hearing it for the first time.  There’s a manager who has been cooking the books. He’s been caught, and the CEO has told him to clean out his office. But instead, the manager quickly alters the records even more, so that the people who owe the company money get a big reduction. He’s hoping that the people he helps will in turn help him once he’s out on the street.

Now right at that moment, when the evil person has been exposed, many of Jesus’ parables will conclude with condemnation, something like, “Bind him and cast him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”; or, “Assuredly I say to you, that man will be cast into prison and not get out until he has repaid the last penny.”  We expect to hear an ending to the story that promises justice. But instead, Jesus surprises us with a radically different kind of ending: the embezzling, wasteful, dishonest manager gets praised. So what’s going on?

First, we have to remember that many of the things Jesus says are purposely surprising and strange. The strangeness is precisely where Jesus makes His point, that the kingdom of God doesn’t operate according to our expectations or rules. In the sayings of Jesus, camels go through the eyes of needles, armies go to war over snubbed dinner invitations, and bridesmaids get locked out of wedding receptions.

Jesus obviously isn’t endorsing cheating. So what is He teaching us with this strange parable? First, we have a problem with money.  Jesus doesn’t aim this parable at con-men and book-cookers. He aims it at you. You may say, “I’ve never embezzled money; and if the IRS audited me, they would find I’ve paid the taxes I owe.” But the parable isn’t really about cheating. It’s about the problem of having a life and a heart oriented toward the service of money.

Everything you have, no matter how hard you’ve worked for it, you wouldn’t have it unless God had given it you.  Even more, God has given you what you have for a purpose. He’s entrusted it to you to manage it for Him, and this parable teaches us that we need to be faithful to that trust. “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” Mammon means wealth, property, food, provisions.  Jesus calls the mammon unrighteous not because it’s evil in itself, but because of the power it can hold over us. And He concludes by telling us we can only have one master. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” “No servant can serve two masters.”

So what has mastery over you?  What takes precedence over church and God’s Word in your life?  What is it that you wouldn’t be willing to give up if the Lord asked you to?  If you’re not willing to give it up, you’re not recognizing it as something that actually belongs to God.  You think it’s your own and not something He has given you to manage for your necessities and the good of others and His glory.

There’s actually something incredibly freeing about being a steward and not the Lord–and not just when it comes to money, but everything. We might sometimes prefer to live in a different time or different circumstances. But realizing that God has put you right where you are in just the situation you are in, then you can embrace your various vocations in life as callings from Him, even if they involve crosses or difficulties. You can say, quite truthfully, “God has put me here, in 2020, in this country, this church, this family, with these neighbors, with this work to do.”

When the unjust steward is called before the rich man, he’s told, “Give an account of your stewardship.” That’s the command that will be put to each one of us, too.  The Lord says, “I give you this money, this job, this spouse, these parents, these children. Do not worry about what some other person has; do not covet your neighbor’s house, or wife, or property. Be faithful where I have put you as a steward, a manager of the things I have entrusted to you.”

This call to give an account is a call to repentance for all of us, who have fallen short in our stewardship of God’s gifts.  Let us then, first of all, turn back again to doing what the Lord has given us to do in our callings.  Jesus says, “The sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.”  In other words, worldly people are single-minded in achieving their goals.  If they can be so very passionate about things that will pass away, how much more should we be about eternal things!  So, Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail [and die], they may receive you into an everlasting home.”  The unjust steward, selfish though he was, lived with an eye toward the future.  That’s also how we should be, but in a selfless way, living with an eye toward the eternal dwelling place that God has already prepared for us purely by His grace in Christ. We are given to use the things of this world, we are to put unrighteous mammon to righteous purposes, for the good of Christ’s church and our fellow man.  This is how everlasting friends are made, those who believe and are baptized, the ones who will share our everlasting home.  You cannot serve God and mammon.  But can make your mammon serve God.

And then second of all, today’s Gospel is a call to faith.  It’s worth noting that this parable comes immediately after the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and they carry a similar message: “It’s time to come home. The Father forgives. He is merciful. Do not delay.”  That’s really the key point of this parable: God is lavishly generous. God’s character is mercy, love, generosity.

Think about it.  Isn’t it strange that the unjust steward is only losing his job? You’d expect him to be thrown into prison, humiliated. But he’s being treated gently. This tells us something about the rich man, that he’s merciful. And the steward knows this and uses it. The debtors quickly accept a reduction of their payments, a hundred measures of oil is cut to fifty; a hundred measures of wheat is cut to eighty. The steward is banking on the rich man honoring these deals, even though they’re unauthorized.  That’s how our God is.  He is generous toward us for the sake of Christ.  He authorizes all of our debts as having been paid for by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.  And He praises those who stake their whole lives and their whole future on His mercy in Jesus.  That’s true wisdom and shrewdness.  Both with the unjust steward and with us, the Lord praises faith in His generosity.

The steward in the parable is very much like the prodigal son.  They both wasted the possessions given to them.  They both put their trust in the mercy and grace of those whom they had wronged.  They both came to learn that the only way to live is to be to be generous, to be merciful, to forgive debts, to use what you have for the benefit of others instead of wasting it on yourself.

That’s who God is. He gives. He’s generous. Our Lord Jesus allowed Himself to be called to account before an unjust judge, Pontius Pilate.  He stood in our place and made sure that our debts were not just reduced by cancelled entirely.  He has taken responsibility for your messed up ledger, and in its place He has inscribed your name in the Book of Life.  And you know that because He has given Himself to you, His Holy Spirit in baptism, the body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion.  The oil and wheat of the sacraments are your true treasure.  These are the things that give you an eternal home.

So let us repent of our mismanagement of God’s gifts.  And let us especially turn back to Him who is patient and merciful toward you.  Believe His promises in Christ.  He is faithful, and He will keep them.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)

Beware of False Prophets; Behold the True Prophet

Matthew 7:13-23

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

Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.”  Our Lord wouldn’t warn us like that unless there was a real and present danger to us.  In fact, the threat a false prophet poses is far worse than that of COVID-19 or violent crime or financial ruin.  For while those things may threaten your earthly lives, false teaching endangers your eternal life.  

A big part of what makes false prophets so dangerous is that very often we actually like what they have to say.  False teachers tell you what you want to hear.  “Just follow your heart; live your truth; chase your dreams.”  They’ll also play to your fears--in this year 2020, fear has almost been made into a virtue.  But they'll try to make you fearful of certain Christian teachings, caricaturing Christian doctrine to turn you away from God’s Word  to worldly ideologies and man-made solutions. It is written in 2 Timothy, “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 desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

A true prophet preaches repentance.  But false prophets know that condemning sin and warning people to be saved from the coming judgment doesn’t sell too well these days.  It’s so negative and harsh.  Nobody wants to be told that they need to turn from their self-absorbed ways.  What people want is something practical to help them in their families and at work, a spirituality that helps them to feel better about themselves.  False prophets don’t preach repentance but a generic acceptance that doesn’t require the atonement of the cross.

This is what the prophet Jeremiah spoke of in the Old Testament reading.  The false prophets say to those who despise God, “The Lord has said, ‘You shall have peace’ And to everyone who does whatever they want to do, the false prophets say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’” False prophets will often come across as very inclusive and loving.  But in truth, they let people get away with their self-justification and rationalization of sin.  They let fraudulent spirituality sit unchallenged next to Christian truth to avoid offending anyone.  While they may seem to be so nice and open, there is nothing caring or loving about tolerating false teaching or ungodly living.  For such things are lethal to the soul and invite God’s judgment.  That is the broad path that leads to destruction.

False prophets are also a real threat to us because they look like the real thing.  Jesus said, “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravenous wolves.”  Many false prophets will be all about doing good works and being a good person and helping your fellow man.  You’ll look at them and say, “They must be from God.  Look at how religious they are.  Look at how spiritual their talk is.”  The pope with his pomp looks good.  The hard-working Muslim neighbor who prays 5 times a day looks good.  The passionate Jehovah’s Witness, the family-values Mormon looks good.  But in the end, they are in the same camp as the Pharisees, who falsely believed that living an obedient life is the way you gain God’s favor.  Those who trust in their own good works to make themselves better candidates for heaven are just engaging in a more spiritual form of self-absorption.  They’re in love with themselves and their own righteousness.  The devil is perfectly happy with that sort of religion.

Repent, then, of where you’ve given room to false prophecy, or where you’ve failed to warn your family and friends against it.  Give up trying to justify yourself or your sin.  Turn from all of that, and humbly seek His mercy.  Give your attention to true prophetic words.

But how can you be sure of who a true prophet is?  Well, to begin with, there is really only one true Prophet, and that is Christ himself.  He alone speaks the words of God without flaw and without fail.  He is the Word of God in the flesh and the fulfillment of all prophecy.  His alone are the words of eternal life.  Do not put your trust in any man or woman.  I am called and sent by God to be your pastor, but your faith should never be in me or my opinions, but only in the Word of God which I am given to speak.  Paul reminded the pastors at Ephesus that false prophets would arise from among themselves.  In other words, good prophets would go bad.  So make sure that it is the word of Christ that you are hearing, the holy Scriptures that are being proclaimed to you and not just some nice-sounding human wisdom.  The solid rock upon which the Church is built is the words of Jesus.  Everything else is sinking sand.  When what is preached is not a vision of the preacher’s own heart but that which comes from the mouth of the Lord, then you are hearing a true prophet.  

But you might rightly say, “False teachers quote the Bible just like genuine teachers.  How do I tell the difference?  How can I tell whether or not someone is misusing Christ’s Word?”  The simplest answer that I can give to you is one I’ve told you several times before:  Know your Catechism by heart; it’s not that long.  For there in the Catechism and the Creeds is summarized for you the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures and all that you need to know and believe to be saved.  There is confessed God’s holy Law and Gospel by which you are brought to repentance and to faith in Christ.  There you have what the church has taught and believed since the days of the apostles.  If what someone is preaching sounds a little weird to you, different from the Catechism and the Creeds and the Word of God you’ve heard preached here, then beware of it; flee from it.  

Jesus says in the Gospel when judging between true and false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits.”  The fruit refers not simply to their lifestyle, since that can be the deceptive clothing of the wolf.  The fruit refers to the doctrine.  What spiritual food do they offer?  What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon?  Is it solely Christ the Bread of Life, or are other “ingredients” and requirements added, like arsenic on your plate?  It is written, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

I John 4 gives us a test, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”  A true prophet of God will not shy away from affirming the flesh and blood realities of our faith–that God created us male and female and that the one-flesh union of man and woman and marriage is His good gift, or that God the Son became a real flesh and blood human being, that He offered up His body on the cross to save us, that He rose again in the body, and that He comes to us now with His real and literal body and blood in the Sacrament.  Those who contradict any of those things are false prophets.

Here’s one more test: St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you except Christ and Him crucified.”  If Jesus and His sacrifice are not at the heart of everything that is proclaimed, if other stuff is treated as more important or more relevant, then that prophet isn’t true.  Paul told the pastors at Ephesus “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  That blood of Christ is the thread that runs through all true prophecy and preaching.

And don’t forget this: a false prophet may not know that he is one.  He may be very sincere.  But sincerity and passion are not a reliable test.  Jesus said, “Many will say to Me in that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me.’” It’s not the impressiveness of the works or the success or the numbers that you should go by.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  

The One who does the will of the Father is Christ Himself.  Consider that night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus prayed to His Father, “If it is possible, take this cup away from Me.  Nevertheless not My will but Your will be done.”  It was the will of the Father that Jesus lay down His life for you to rescue you from hell.  It was the will of the Father that Jesus be cut down like a bad tree and thrown into the fire of judgment in your place.  It was the will of the Father that Jesus be a sheep in wolves’ clothing, the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in sin and evil at Calvary in order to put them to death in His body, so that you might be delivered from all evil forever.  The wolf has been conquered.  You have been cleansed from all sin by Christ’s blood.  You are given entrance into the kingdom of heaven in Christ.

And so, to do the will of the Father, for you, means to take to heart the Word of Christ that is preached to you and stake your whole life on it.  Here is the true prophetic Word for you today, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is here.  Believe the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  The will of the Father was done when you were baptized, squeezed through the narrow way of the cross to a new life.  The will of the Father is done as you live the life of faith and love, receiving from God His free gifts and giving of yourself to others in your daily vocations.  And the will of your Father is done as you come to the Lord’s table in simple faith.  For the tree of the cross has borne the most abundant fruit, the body and blood of Christ which gives you His mercy and which will raise you up on the Last Day.

Beware of false prophets.  Behold the true Prophet, Jesus.  His are the words that give you life.  By His fruits you will know Him.

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

The Poor Shall Eat and Be Satisfied

Genesis 2:7-17; Romans 6:23; Mark 8:1-9

Trinity 7

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

At the beginning of creation, there was no death.  Animals did not eat one another; Adam and Eve did not eat the animals.  Food was provided freely by God to all living things from the fruit of the trees and the plants He had created.  Everything was good.  But then through sin, death entered into the world.  All creation fell under the curse of man’s rebellion.  Life become only temporary.  The ground produced weeds and thistles.  The animal world became red in tooth and claw.  Man in many ways became like an animal, instinctually seeking self-interest and survival.  God’s sentence on us was “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

And yet it might appear to some that what God said would happen didn’t.  The Lord had said, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”  But Adam and Eve were still alive and kicking for many decades after they ate, even if life had become much more difficult.  So what’s going on here?  

Death has to do with a lot more than just the body giving out.  Death ultimately has to do with being separated from God, being cut off from His presence and His goodness.  In the end that’s what hell is, eternal death, the place where those who want to live apart from God and His words get exactly what they asked for.  So while physical death is indeed the consequence of sin, death ultimately is spiritual.  In the day that they ate of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve really did die.  They were only hollow shells of what they once were.

Sadly, that’s how it is also for us who are their children.  Every sin causes a little death in us.  Laziness brings boredom with God’s creation and an unhappiness with the blessings He provides.  Pornography and sexual immorality diminish people and ruin families and sear consciences.  Overindulging in food or drink produces health problems and a sluggish spirit.  Impatience leads to relationship-killing anger.  Gossiping leads to conflict and broken friendships.  Greed and the love of control overwhelms human connections.  Skipping church leads to a growing callousness toward God’s life-giving Word and preaching.  Those who embrace sin are actually embracing death.  Sin empties us of life and hollows us out–like the empty stomachs of the 4000.

Repent, then, and take to heart the words of today’s Epistle which declare, “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!”  Notice the difference in terminology there.  The first half talks about wages, the second half talks about a gift.  The first part talks about what we have earned, the second part talks about what God has freely given without our earning it.  Our working has led to death, but God’s working leads to life through His Son.  

In today’s Gospel we see a wonderful picture of how God worked to save us from death and bring us back into His life.  For there we see Jesus in the wilderness with the multitudes.  After three days they were feeling the effects of sin’s curse very concretely, being hungry and weary with no food around to refresh or sustain them.  Man’s sin had turned the world from the abundance of Paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse and restore humanity and all of creation.  The Son of God took on your human body and soul and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen, desert world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  

The key thing that Jesus says here is, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with the deepest possible empathy and feeling.  So fully does Jesus empathize with you and feel for you that He went so far as to breathe in your sin-poisoned air.   He knows what you’re going through.  He knows how discouraging and demoralizing it is to be constantly bombarded with negative headlines in the news about what’s going on in the world and in our own communities.  He knows what it’s like to be tired and weary of it all.  He knows what it means to be rejected and alone.  He knows what it’s like to experience bodily pain and to be forsaken.  Whatever it is that you’re dealing with and going through, Jesus has been there, for you.  In His great mercy He came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He has real compassion on you.  He made Himself a part of the mud and the blood in order to redeem you and revive the fallen creation in which you live.

You can begin to see that taking place here in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  But now the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death and overcome the fall into sin.  You are given just a small glimpse of how it will be in the new creation in the age to come.

Jesus completed His work of undoing the fall and breaking the curse on the cross.  There He actually turned the curse into a blessing for you.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took the wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s power was broken in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, the gift of life now flows to you and to all who believe in Him.  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone, right?  Death and hell have been taken away from you through the cross.  All that remains for you now is life, full and free, through Jesus’ resurrection on the third day, just as He performed this miracle on the third day.

Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  Still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  Bread, which was a sign of death in the beginning, is now a sign of life in Jesus.  Jesus uses seemingly insufficient bread to multiply His grace and feed and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

One final point: when all had eaten, there was more left over than when they started.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  This is a sign that the Lord’s compassion does not fail or run out.  It only grows and gets better.  And the number is important here, too.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  The Lord is exalting you to a status even greater than Adam and Eve knew.  The new creation being prepared for you surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For all things are fulfilled and brought to their pinnacle in Christ.  

So even though we see the signs of death in us and around us, we are also given to see the signs of Christ’s life in us and around us as well.  For just as sin bears the rotten fruit of death, so forgiveness bears the salutary fruit of life–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which we may eat and never die, never to be separated from God and His goodness again.  

Like the 4000, you glimpse Paradise here in this place.  As you receive the bread of life, you are being given a taste of heaven.  For heaven is where Christ is; and Christ is here for you.  “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who trusts in Him.”  

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

I Did Not Come to Destroy But to Fulfill

Matthew 5:17-26

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

Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.”  Jesus was not a political radical or a revolutionary as He’s sometimes portrayed.   He wasn’t a “community organizer” trying to demolish the “system” and replace it with something altogether different.  He didn’t come to overthrow the institutions of the Old Testament but rather to bring them to their goal and culmination.  After all, He’s the one who established the Old Testament.  He came to bring it all to its perfect expression and realization in Himself, to fulfill it and thereby to bring about the New Testament.

That’s why Jesus 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 and gender and family 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, 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 probably 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.

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.  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.

Truly keeping the Law is not just about good outward behavior like the Pharisees; it’s also about thoughts and desires–an inward righteousness.  This is how Jesus teaches the 5th Commandment.  It’s not simply that you shouldn’t murder, but if you speak angry words or harbor ill thoughts or desire payback, you’re a murderer in your heart.  And it’s not only what you shouldn’t do but what you should do, too–helping those in bodily need, seeking reconciliation with those who have wronged you, or those whom you have wronged, as far as that is possible, as far as it depends on you.  So have you done all that?  Keeping all the commandments both outwardly and in your thoughts and words?  Can you really do any better than the scribes and the Pharisees?  If not, then the judgment of the Law is that you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Repent, then.  Let the Law drive you away from yourself and your own efforts to Christ, who is your only Help and the only One who can save you.  For only in Jesus do you receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where you 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.  And He did this 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.”  Jesus kept the commandments perfectly.  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 Testament ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth.  Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus became our Sabbath Himself, as He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I release you from the crushing weight of the Law.  I give you peace and reconciliation with God.”  And by His once-for-all offering as the Lamb of God on the cross, all the sacrifices came to their end and their goal.  So whether it’s the food rules or anything else, it’s all fulfilled in Jesus.  Through Him you now have perfect cleansing from your sin.  Through Him the Law no longer condemns you.  You’ve been put right with God again.  It is accomplished, completed, perfected.  All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  Our Lord is risen from the dead to give you a new life and a sure hope.

That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be bad news are now the greatest good news:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  But by faith in Christ, your righteousness actually 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.  Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact you have already entered it by faith.  For you are baptized into Christ, and He is 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.

Let Down Your Nets for a Catch

Luke 5:1-11

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

Today’s Gospel is about fishing–catching fish, catching people.  But there’s a fundamental mistake we still often make with this image.  We tend to think of fishing the way we we’re used to doing it on a Wisconsin lake: bait your hook, throw in a line, and if it’s a good day, reel in your catch.  And so we apply this imagery to how people should be drawn in to the church.  First, the thinking goes, we need to come up with some bait, something to excite people so that we can hook them and yank them into the church.  What will attract the youth or young families or this or that group of people?  We need talented performers and a whole menu of programs to meet people’s felt needs.  We need to make that Gospel hook seem nice and comfortable and enticing so that our intended quarry will take a big bite and get good and snagged.

But there are two problems with that image.  First of all, bait is all about fooling the fish as to your true intentions, right?  You offer it the lure of food only to make it food for you.  It’s about trickery and manipulation.  And that is not the way of our God.  His is the way of truth.  His is the way of saying what we need to hear, not what we want to hear, so that we may be saved.  The holy church of Christ can never be in the bait and switch business.  We’re not here to fake people into becoming Christian.  What sort of disciples would that really produce, anyway?  Jesus, rather, was always rather blunt and right out front, as He is in Luke 14, “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

We need to remember that in today’s Gospel it’s not a rod and reel and bait that are being used but a net.  And that’s a whole different kind of fishing.  The net is cast, which is to say, the Word of God is proclaimed.  And through Christ’s Word, fish are drawn in to the boat of the Church as together many hear and believe His preaching.

That’s what was going on at the beginning of the Gospel.  Many were pressing in around Jesus to hear Him speak the words of God.  Because of the crowds, Jesus gets into a boat and asks Simon to put out a little from shore.  The reflection of the sound off of the water enables a larger number of people to hear.  Our Lord uses the boat as a pulpit to preach His Word of salvation to the people.  Christ is in the boat drawing the people to Himself.  Like a fisherman, He casts the net of the Gospel to draw the fish into the boat.

So it is still today.  The place where you are sitting is called the “nave” of the church, Latin for “ship.”  The people of God even now press in around Jesus to hear His Word, because Christ is here in the boat.  You fish, who swim in the waters of baptism, are drawn in by His teaching.  The Word of God still reflects off of the baptismal water, calling you to repentance and to faith in Jesus, bringing you everlasting life.

Our Lord then proceeds to perform a miracle which illustrates the miracle of salvation which He was accomplishing through His preaching.  Jesus says to Simon Peter, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  Now Simon knows that no good fisherman goes to the deep for a catch.  And no good fisherman fishes in the heat of the day but when the sun is lower in the sky.  What our Lord commands Simon to do here makes no sense.  But this is the way it’s done with the Lord.  He goes to the deep, to the very depths of sin and death to pull up His catch of sinful men by water and the Word and to create in us new life.  

“Launch out into the deep” our Lord still says.  Not only in the safe suburbs, but in the cities, in sparsely populated rural areas, not only to people who seem open to Christian spirituality but also to the “unspiritual,” to people of every age and color and nationality and marital status.  The church is given to proclaim the Gospel wherever Christ gives us opportunity–me by preaching in this place and in my visits; and you by confessing your faith in your daily callings out there as family members and workers and citizens and neighbors, so that others might be drawn in to get caught in the net of Christ’s teaching and thereby enter His boat.  Remember what the Epistle reading said, “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.”  That means hearing Christ’s preaching and studying His Word regularly so that you're ready to answer their questions.

Peter responded to Jesus’ command, “Master, we toiled all night and caught nothing.”  In the darkness, our own efforts produce nothing.  However, in the Light of Christ Peter goes on to say, “At Your Word I will let down the nets.”  Purely by faith Simon surrenders all that he knows and all that he has experienced and lets down the nets.  So it is to be in the Church.  Not our word but Jesus’ Word is our life and salvation.  What counts is not what seems reasonable and practical to us, but what is good and right in the sight of the Lord.  The still, small voice of the Gospel of Christ crucified, which is foolishness to the world, is the power of God to us.  His truth orders our lives.

Simon does what our Lord commands, and the nets fill up.  In fact, they are beginning to break and some fish are escaping, just as when the net of the Gospel is cast, not all believe what is preached; not all are drawn in to the boat.  Sadly there have been several people in this place whom I have drawn in with the net of the Gospel in preaching and adult instruction but who have since slipped away, out of the nets back into the depths of this world and its ways.

Peter’s reaction to this miracle seems a bit surprising.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  This mighty work of Jesus causes Peter to see that he was in the presence of the holy God.  And so the unbelief that remains in Peter rises up and begins to overwhelm him.  “God is holy.  God hates sin.  I am a sinner.  I am lost.”  But that is the preaching of the devil.  The devil is good at preaching only half of the truth.  Peter is indeed a sinner, as are you.  God does indeed hate sin, with a passion.  Sinners do die.

However, the One who stands before Simon Peter, and before you this day, Jesus the Son of God, did not come into this world to condemn the world but to save the world–to rescue Peter, and to rescue you.  Just as Simon Peter trusted in the Lord when he went out to catch fish in the deep, so now you are to trust in the Lord as He speaks His incredible mercy to you.  To the sinner who in shame says, “Depart from me, Lord” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”  Notice our Lord doesn’t say, “Oh, that’s okay, it’s not really that bad.”  No, our Lord says, “Do not be afraid.”  “You are forgiven.  I have taken on your very flesh and blood to sanctify you and make you holy.  Your sins have been paid for by my cross, so that now you can stand before a holy God and live.  Do not be afraid.”

And finally, our Lord does one more amazing thing.  He says to Peter, “From now on you will catch men.”  In other words He makes this sinner into an apostle and a preacher of the Gospel, so that more fish, more slippery characters might be drawn into the boat.  Let us remember, then, not to glorify the preachers Christ calls and ordains–they are sinners like anyone else.  Let us rather glorify Christ who goes so far as to use fallen men to speak His Word and minister His Sacraments, that you fish might continually be drawn into the church.  

Even today, our Lord feeds His fish with the riches of His Altar.  He draws you to Himself, that through His true and literal body and blood, He may dwell in you and you in Him forever.  He partook of you by becoming human.  And now you partake of Him in the Supper, that you may share in His divine glory.  Just as the great fish swallowed up Jonah to save him from death, so also Jesus took you into Himself, swallowing up your sin and death on the cross, and raising you up to a new life on the third day in His bodily resurrection.

So let it not be said among you, “Lord, depart from me.  I must stay away from you. You couldn’t possibly save a sinner like me.”  Instead, God grant you to say, “At Your Word, Lord, I forsake all my plans, all my ways of thinking and doing things to follow you.  At your Word, Lord, I let down my defenses and trust in Your loving kindness.  For You are my light and my salvation.”

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

Judge(d) Not

Luke 6:36-42; John 8:1-11

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

Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel, “Judge not, and you shall not be judged.”  So what exactly does that mean?  Unlike what the world thinks, Jesus does not mean that we should be OK with false teaching or ungodly living and never speak against such things.  After all, He also teaches us to beware of false prophets (Matt. 7:15), which means we have to judge what they say and avoid listening to them.  And He likewise tells us not to be ashamed of confessing His Word “in this adulterous and sinful generation” (Luke 12:8; Mark 8:38).  Speaking the truth of God’s Word sometimes requires saying that what is contrary to it is wrong and false.  Christians should never give in to the ridiculous notion that no matter what our family or friends do or believe, we should “support” them.  We should still love them and bear with them.  But we uphold and support God’s living words above all.  1 Corinthians 13 reminds us, “Love does not rejoice in iniquity but rejoices in the truth.”  So “Judge not” never means ignoring or minimizing what is good and right and true.

No, what Jesus means is this: there are two ways of dealing with others–in a way that finds fault, or in a way that explains everything in the kindest way.  Especially with those whom we are closest to–spouses and children, co-workers and relatives and friends–it can be easy to fall into a pattern of judging and fault-finding.  For since we’re close to these people, we know them very well.  We see their weaknesses and failings.  And over time, those things can become bothersome and annoying.  Then we get this narrative running in our head that they’re uncaring or lazy or frigid or greedy or impatient or selfish.  And then we start looking for things which prove our point and fit that narrative.  And before long that’s all we can see about the other person.  We view everything through that judgmental lens.  We look for reasons to condemn them and prove we’re right and justify our withholding of mercy.  All of this breeds resentment which kills relationships.

But Jesus here calls us to turn from those old, fallen ways and to follow His higher ways.  Not only does He want you to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  In this Gospel He’s taking it a step further, “do unto others as you would have your heavenly Father do unto you.”  Do you want God not to judge and condemn you?  Then don’t be judging and condemning others.  Do you want God to forgive your sins and give you richly all things to enjoy?  Then let go of your grudges, and stop being stingy.  That’s the gist of Jesus’ words.

Our old Adam rages against those words and resists them.  He thinks that if you don’t look out for yourself, who will?  He doesn’t trust that vengeance belongs to the Lord or that what others mean for evil God can work for good.  The old Adam thinks it’s foolish to believe the Lord’s words that it is better to give than to receive.

However, you have been claimed by Another, haven’t you?  You have been marked with the sign of the cross, and you now belong to the New Adam, to the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. You’ve been baptized into Him.  You now get to share in His life and live it.

This life of Jesus which you’ve been given to live is not one of judgment and condemnation.  For Jesus came to rescue you from the judgment of death which you deserved.  It is written in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Think about that!  Through your baptismal faith in Jesus, there’s nothing left to condemn in you.  Not a single thing.  Jesus didn’t come to pay you back for your countless rebellions.  He came to pay the price for them, bearing them Himself under His Father’s judgment as He hung on the tree.  “Father, forgive them” is the cry of His life.  All who take refuge under His cross are just that: forgiven.  Jesus came not to take from you but to give to you–rich measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over–pouring into your laps abundant mercy and acceptance.

And I think a perfect example of our Lord’s mercy is the account of how He dealt with the adulterous woman.  Do you remember that account?  “The scribes and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery.  And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned to death.  What do you say?’ . . .  But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.”  Isn’t that wonderful?  Even though this woman did indeed deserve death for her sin, to return to the dust that Jesus stooped down to write in, yet Jesus does not listen to the accusation of the Law against this woman.  For He is the fulfillment of the Law.  He silences the Law’s accusation against you.  He is deaf to its judgment for the sake of His own mercy.  “So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’  And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.”  Jesus’ words brought these men to see that in their eagerness to condemn this woman, they were also condemning themselves.  Judge not, and you shall not be judged.  The older ones especially knew that they were not without sin, that they, too, needed God’s mercy.  

So it’s clear that Jesus is not saying that we should accept sin or condone it as being OK.  Remember that this same Jesus is also the one who flipped the tables of the greedy moneychangers and cleansed the temple with a whip.  He’s the same one who called the prideful scribes and Pharisees whitewashed tombs.  No, what Jesus is doing is teaching us to look at all of life from the perspective of how we stand before God, lest in taking the speck out of our brother or sister’s eye, we fail to recognize the plank in our own.  Once we’ve dealt with our own issues, then we’re better prepared to help our neighbor in a way that truly flows from love.

Back to the end of the story of the woman caught in adultery:  “When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?’  She said, ‘No one, Lord.’  And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’”  This woman was forgiven, released and freed from her sinful way of life.  For Jesus Himself would stand condemned for her.  He would be lowered to the dust of death, for her sin and the sins of the whole world.  He would lie dead on the cold stone of His tomb.  Just as Jesus here raised Himself up from the dust, so also He raised up this woman to a new life.  He gave her His own life.

And that’s the same life He has given also to you in your Baptism.  As Jesus defended and delivered the adulterous woman, so also He speaks up on your behalf and delivers you from the death you deserve for your sins.  Jesus is your Advocate with the Father, who protects and defends you and saves you.  The devil and even your own conscience may accuse you.  But Jesus Himself is the atoning sacrifice for your sins.  Jesus says to you, “Where are your accusers?  The devil’s head has been crushed.  Your sins have all been answered for.  There are no stones left to throw.  You are free.  Be at peace.”

The Christian life, then, is this pattern of drowning your old Adam with all his desires, confessing that you have a plank in your eye, and then receiving absolution from Jesus who took and carried away that plank when He bore the wooden beam of the cross up to Golgotha.  When you see yourself rightly as one who has been rescued like that, who has been given an undeserved pardon and reprieve, then you are someone who is ready to be of some use to your neighbor! You get to carry the good news of that free pardon to others, telling them of what the death of Christ has won for them.  And instead of finding fault, you get to find ways to cover up one another’s faults.  For it is written, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  

The love of Christ has covered the multitude of your sins forever.  That love is given to you here and now in the holy supper.  Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over is put into your bosom in the grain which is Christ’s body and in the cup that runs over with His mercy, His holy blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Such is the generosity of our God.  It’s beyond measure.  It’s always spilling over, so that you may be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.

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

The Father's Love

Luke 15:11-32

Trinity 3

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

We live in a culture right now which is big on the need for penance and making atonement, but not very big on the idea of forgiveness.  What I mean is this: If an athlete or a celebrity or public figure has ever said or done something that is now considered offensive or unacceptable–say on the topic of gay marriage or transgenderism or social justice–they must grovel and apologize and show how they’ve become enlightened by the new “progressive” dogma.  But even then, after they’ve tried to atone for themselves before the media high priests, they’re often still considered to be on the outside, permanently tarnished by their transgression.  You may have heard of “cancel culture,” where such transgressors are blacklisted and excluded from being heard.  To put this all another way, the world today demands confession for what it considers to be sin, but it resists absolution; it is not very inclined to forgive and let go of sin.

This is a serious problem, not only in the world but sometimes also in our own relationships.  Too often we are like the older brother in today’s Gospel parable, wanting those who have done wrong, who have been prodigal and morally reckless, to have to pay a lasting price, and to lose their status.  We tell ourselves that’s the righteous thing.  But in truth it’s often a subtle tool we like to use to justify ourselves, to indulge our self-righteousness, to boost our own status. Like the world, we, too, stress the need for people to confess, to say they’re sorry.  But we don’t always find it very easy to say “I forgive you,” to absolve people and release them from their sin.

But that’s not at all the way it is with the father in today’s parable.  He is all about the absolution.  The confession isn’t the big deal, it’s the forgiveness and the mercy that runs the show.  Did you notice how the father actually cut short the prodigal son’s confession?  The younger son had his confession speech all prepared.  And it was right as far as it went.  He had sinned against his father grievously.  He wasn’t worthy to be called a son any longer.  He did deserve to lose his status and to be treated like a hired servant.  And the same is true for all of you.  Every sin is a little turning your back on your heavenly Father.  Every time you stray from his commands, you are leaving behind who you are as a child of God in His household.

But when the younger son returned home and it was actually time to speak the confession, the father didn’t even let him finish.  The son didn’t even have a chance to say the part about being made to be like a hired servant.  Imagine if I cut you all off right in the middle of the confession at the beginning of the service because I was so eager to get to the absolution and the “I forgive you” part.  In a very real way that’s what the father does here.  His heart and mind are set on the joy of having his son back, of celebrating the absolution.  The father’s true delight is to pour out his love on his child.  

This is the way it is for you with God.  Confession is important; a penitent and humble heart is what He desires.  But the Lord doesn’t forgive you because you’ve done the good work of confessing.  He forgives you because He is good and merciful.  He wants your heart to be penitent so that it’s open to receiving the great lovingkindness He desires to pour out on you.  He wants you to share fully in the joy of His household.

You can see how much the father wants that by the way he behaves in the parable.  He hadn’t written off or forgotten about his son.  Instead, we see a father who’s still longing for his son to return.  He’s waiting, looking down the road.  It says here, “But when (the younger son) was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”  Dignified men don’t run, but the father was compelled to do so by his love, going out to bring and welcome his son back, even before the son could say a word.

 It’s precisely that love of the father that drew the son to come home in the first place.  He certainly underestimated his father’s response.  But what gave the prodigal son hope that he might somehow be received back was the goodness and kindness of the father that he remembered.  In the same way, it written in Romans 2 that the goodness and kindness of God leads us to repentance.  Knowing the love He has for us in Christ allows us to honestly acknowledge the full depth of our fallen condition, and it creates in us the desire to come home and to be rescued from our prodigal and prideful ways.

The father’s forgiveness is not conditional.  There’s no probationary testing period for the son.  Instead, the father immediately puts a distinguished robe on him.  He gives him the family ring with all the authority that brings with it.  He puts sandals on his feet, for only the servants would be barefoot.  And the father throws a party, for he wants to celebrate that his son who was “dead” is alive again.  

Of course, when you hear of someone being dead and alive again, you can’t help but think of Jesus, right?  And you should!  For when it comes right down to it, Jesus is the real prodigal son in this parable.  God the Father wants to have you with Himself so much that He made His own Son to be like this younger son.  Consider what it says here.  It says that the father gave to the younger son of his livelihood, or more literally his “substance”–just as we confess in the Creed that Jesus is of one substance with the Father.  Then the Son of the Father goes to a far country, which is to say, the Son of God descends to earth and becomes man for us.  Here He blows His wealth and His substance consorting with tax collectors and sinners and the likes of us.  Jesus is prodigal and beautifully reckless in the way He dishes out His grace and mercy toward us.  He loses it all for you, dying in your place as if He were the rebellious sinner, to win your forgiveness.  Then the Son of God arises from the grave and returns to His Father, who exalts Him to His right hand, and gives Him the name that is above every name, rejoicing that He who was dead is alive again, that He who was lost for a time to the grave has been found triumphant over sin, death, and the devil.  

Once you were dead and lost.  But God raised you to life in His Son Jesus.  The Father now says to you, “Your brother, My Son Jesus was dead, and is alive again.  Repent and find your life in Him.  No matter how low it has gotten for you, Jesus has gone to the lowest depths on your behalf in order to become the way back for you. You’re not an outcast stepchild here.  You are robed in Jesus’ righteousness at the font and the family ring is put on your finger.  The banquet table of the supper is laid before you, the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  You are a full-fledged child in My house through Jesus; for He came into the world to save sinners.  Full atonement has been made for you.  Welcome home.”

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

("The Prodigal Son" © Edward Riojas, is used with permission.  You can order prints of this artwork here.)

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