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Jesus Doesn't Fit the World's Categories

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Matthew 22:34-46
Trinity 18

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

    The Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees.  The Pharisees liked that.  For they and the Sadducees were in opposing camps.  The Sadducees were sort of like the liberal theologians of our day.  They accepted the books of Moses, but they didn’t believe in the existence of angels or life after death or the resurrection of the body.  The Pharisees did believe in all of those things, and they were glad when Jesus could be used as ammunition against their rivals–anything that would advance their power and their agenda.  Putting it into our terms, the Pharisees were the conservatives, with their emphasis on living a righteous life according to the Law, and the Sadducees were the liberals, the more culturally elite and powerful.

    We know well what it’s like to live in a world where everything has political overtones like that.  There aren’t many areas of life left where you aren’t pressured to take up sides with this or that group.  Relationships with co-workers or friends or family are full of land mines if certain issues of religion or sexuality or gender come up.  Entertainers seem to be focused less on entertaining and more with political mocking and virtue signaling.  Even in the once politics-free realm of sports, political causes are often the focus, and everyone feels compelled to take up sides for this or against that.  Everything we do now is seen through the political lens of privilege or race or gender or class.  In an era where objective truth has largely been abandoned, all that’s left is power.  Have you ever noticed how often that term is used, how people feel they need to be “empowered?”  Power is the realm of politics and control and one group asserting itself against another.null

    But this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus is not one who was after political power.  He was not merely trying to win a victory for some group or some cause, and so He can’t really be categorized politically.  Was He a conservative or a liberal or a moderate?  Just when one group or another thought that He was their man, Jesus would say something to prove that He wasn’t.

    So for instance, just before today’s Gospel Jesus said something that the conservative Pharisees didn’t like.  They had asked him about whether or not they should be paying taxes to the foreign occupiers, the Roman government.  And Jesus famously said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus sounded a little bit pro-establishment.

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

    Like the people in His day, we also want to label Jesus and fit Him into our categories so that we can handle Him and manage Him–Jesus as a republican or a democrat or a free-love libertarian, Jesus as a capitalist or a socialist.  You’ll notice that even unbelievers try to get Jesus on their side and will quote the Bible they never read to support their particular cause.  But Jesus defies all our attempts to make His Word fit our worldly agendas and ideologies.  For as soon as we try to do that, we are making ourselves to be Lord and Master, and Jesus becomes merely the means to achieve our goals.  And that’s not how it works.  Jesus remains the Lord, and His Word is sent to accomplish His purposes, not ours.  If the God you worship agrees with everything you already believed, it’s probably not God you’re worshiping, but yourself.

    “Teacher,” the Pharisees asked, “which is the great commandment in the law?”  It was a question intended to categorize Jesus and support their self-righteous thinking.  It treated the Scriptures like a textbook rather than the living, Spirit-filled words of God.  Our Lord would not play the Pharisees’ game or submit to their litmus test.  So instead of choosing a single commandment, He summarized them all.  Since love is the fulfillment of the law, Jesus answers in two parts.  First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  That’s not something you can reduce down to a bunch of do’s and don’ts.  For that Law commands you to love God with every fiber of your being, all that you are, with nothing held back from Him.  He wants the entire devotion of your heart; all of your allegiance to be with Him alone.

    And in case someone thinks that loving God means leaving ordinary life and your fellow man, He goes on, “And the second (great commandment) is like (the first): ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These two go hand in hand.  The love of God and the love of the neighbor are inseparable.  For God seeks to be loved in your neighbor.  The Lord Jesus–who took up our nature and truly shares in our humanity–He is present therefore in all those around us, particularly those in need, to receive our acts of kindness and self-giving.  As the proverb says, “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.”  That’s why Jesus says that the commands are alike: Because God is served both in love for Him and in love for the neighbor.

    And this is where the living voice of the Law nails you.  It exposes your lovelessness.  It lays bare your self-satisfying motivations when you do engage in good works.  It brings nothing but judgment and death.  It calls you all to repent and to turn to Christ.

    For Jesus then gets us back on the track that leads to salvation and life.  The Pharisees had asked a manipulative Law question, but now Jesus asks a freeing Gospel question, not one that focuses on us, but one that focuses on who He is.  Jesus gets us away from religious philosophizing and political debates between this or that group, and instead He leads us to meditate on the personhood of the Messiah Redeemer.  Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah?  Whose Son is He?”  They said to Him, “The Son of David.”  And that was correct.  God had promised King David in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be one of His descendants.

    Jesus then asks them this question, “How then does David in the Spirit call the Messiah ‘Lord’ in one of the Psalms?”  You see, under ordinary circumstances in Jewish culture it would be the son who refers to the father as lord or master, not the other way around.  And yet here David, the father and the great ancestor of the Christ, refers to his descendant as Lord.  Jesus asks them, “Why is that?”  Just as the Pharisees had tried to trap Jesus into a debate with a Law question, Jesus here tries to “trap” them into thinking about the truth of the Gospel with this question, to get them to see the saving reality of who He is.

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

    Here, then, is where the good news is for us.  Jesus, thankfully, does not come in a way that fits into our political or social categories or according to the expectations of whatever groups we align ourselves with.  He comes not in the way of fallen man but in the way of His perfect humanity.  Jesus is the only man in whom God’s love is perfectly embodied.  Jesus kept the Law perfectly for us and in our place.  He loved His heavenly Father with all His heart, with all His soul, and with all His mind, devoting Himself entirely to doing His Father’s will.  And Jesus loved His neighbor as Himself.  He gave Himself completely to those around Him, healing them, helping them, teaching them saving truth.  In the end He gave His life away, laying it down for us on the cross.  There is no greater love than that a man lay down His life for His friends; and you are His friends whom He died for.  Through that perfect act of love and self-giving, Jesus won for you the full forgiveness of your sins.  

    Jesus said that on these two commandments of love hang all the Law and the prophets.  Jesus, who is love in the flesh, hangs on the cross for you to fulfill the Law of love perfectly.  Baptized into Him, the Law’s condemnation is taken away from you, as Romans 8 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  You are free, released, forgiven, right with God in Christ.  His self-sacrifice has rescued you from judgment and has brought you everlasting life.  For Jesus has made your enemies to be His enemies–sin and death and the devil–and by rising from the grave He has made them His footstool.  The grave is conquered; sin is taken away; Satan’s head is crushed.  All of this which you know only by faith you will see with your own eyes at Jesus’ return–when He who is at God’s right hand is revealed in all His glory, and all things that are under His feet will be put under your feet with Him.  

    So remember that our Lord Jesus works not in the way of power politics but in the way of sacrificial self-giving.  He doesn’t tell people what they want to hear in order to gain a larger following than the other side has and more power for Himself.  He tells us the truth of our sin and the truth of His blood-bought forgiveness, so that He might draw us to Himself, that we might be His own special, chosen, and beloved people and live with Him in His kingdom.  He’s not in the business of labeling people based merely on some worldly identity of race or sex or privilege or economic status.  Rather, He gives us all our true and eternal identity as the baptized, as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.  For it is written in Revelation of those in heaven that they are from every tribe and nation and people and language.  We all are given to stand before the throne of God saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain whose blood set us free to be children of God!”  

    This Jesus, the Lamb of God, is present here now–not to rally a political following but to be pure love in the flesh for you, giving you His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  Here is living theology, where the love of God and love of the neighbor all come together in Christ, love’s flesh and blood.  You are sanctified and cleansed in Christ Jesus.  You are saints before God as the epistle said–not because of the Law and what you have done, but because of the Gospel and what Jesus has done.  Continue, therefore, to believe in Him and cling to Him, eagerly waiting for His return.  For He will confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; He will do it.

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

The Sabbath Work of the Lord

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Luke 14:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are You Not of More Value Than They?

Matthew 6:24-34
Trinity 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Calls Matthew

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

    More than once Jesus put the work of a tax collector in 1st century Israel on the same level as the work of a prostitute.  And the comparison is quite valid.  For the woman who was a harlot sold her body for money; but the man who was a tax collector sold his soul for money.  Because he did this, you could even say that the tax collector was more degraded than the prostitute.  He was there among the lowest of the low in society.  And yet this is the background of the one we now call Saint Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist of our Lord, whose day is observed in the church on September 21st.  

    A Jewish tax collector such as Matthew was in a very real sense a turncoat, a traitor.  He had joined the side of the foreigners, the Romans, who were ruling Israel and was a part of their oppression.  It’s as if the old Soviet Union had conquered this country and one of you had decided to work for the enemy in confiscating your fellow citizens’ possessions.  The Romans expected to receive a certain amount of money from Matthew on a regular basis.  The difference between that amount and what Matthew actually assessed his victims was his margin of profit, his income.  Therefore, there was a strong incentive for Matthew to assess high and tax his countrymen for all they were worth, since he was already hated by them for doing this job anyway.

    St. Matthew himself correctly records for us what type of life and work he was pursuing before Christ called him away from it all with the Gospel.  However, Matthew leaves out, unlike Mark and Luke, the fact that his Hebrew name was Levi.  And we can understand why Matthew might choose to neglect this ironic little detail.  Levi was the name of the tribe from which all of Israel’s priests came.  A Levite received no portion or possession of land like the members of the other eleven tribes.  Rather, a Levite was to rely on the Lord as his portion and upon the gifts of his fellow Israelites, who were to honor the Lord by supporting the Levite priests.  Well, our man Matthew-Levi here had decided not to wait upon the Lord but rather to go out and get hold of his own lucrative portion by becoming a tax collector for the Romans.  “Matthew” means “gift of the Lord,” but this Matthew-Levi was no gift to his people as a servant of the Lord.  This Matthew-Levi instead served himself first by becoming a lackey of his people’s Roman conquerors.null

    And so it is somewhat understandable when the Pharisees speak to Jesus’ disciples and ask with righteous indignation, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  However, to this question the Great Healer of sin-sick souls replies that it is not those who are well–or who think they are well–that have need of a physician.  It is rather those who are sick and diseased and who know it.  Think about it.  If you don’t believe you’re sick, you’re not likely to be seeking out a doctor.  It’s generally only when your health fails that you do so.  So it was with these Pharisees.  Though they  had sinful, ill, self-serving hearts like everyone else, they thought that they had no sin-sickness, that they were spiritually healthy.  And so they saw no need for Jesus and were repulsed by the company He was keeping.  But many of the tax collectors and other sinners had come to know very well that things were all wrong with them.  They knew they needed help.  And when the Great Physician came to them, many received His healing medicine.  Moved by His mercy and love, they were turned away from their sin, and they believed in Christ’s words of life, rejoicing in the fellowship of eating with Him in His presence.  Like a skilled and caring doctor ministering to the sick in a third world country, Jesus had come to seek and to save the lost.  And Matthew was one of those whom Jesus sought out and recovered.  

    Jesus continues by telling the Pharisees to go and learn what the Scripture means which says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”  Jesus is referring there to a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea; we heard it last week.  Hosea had actually been instructed by the Lord to go and marry a prostitute, a woman named Gomer.  That action was meant to be a living parable of God’s steadfast and faithful love to His people Israel–Israel which continually went whoring after false gods.  God was saying to His people, “I desire to show you My mercy and loving-kindness far more than to receive your half-hearted and inconsistent sacrifices.”  God was far more interested that they should know Him as Savior and live in His mercy than to see them try to work out their salvation on their own.  

    That beautiful Gospel of God’s undeserved grace toward His people was the living message of Hosea to Gomer.  She was entirely unable to free herself from her sin and her harlotry, but out of sheer mercy God gave Hosea to rescue her.  Hosea literally bought her out of that life.  Matthew, too, was entirely unable to free himself from his sin; he was all caught up in his money-grubbing covetousness.  But out of sheer mercy, Jesus came to him, forgave him, and set him free from that old way of living, calling Matthew to follow him on the path of true life.

    And the same thing, then, is true for you, too.  For we also are in bondage and cannot set ourselves free from our lost condition.  As Hosea says, our faithfulness to the Lord is like the dew that burns away early.  It’s there and then it’s gone.  One minute things look good, and the next we’re straying away from God to adulterate ourselves with other pleasures and priorities.  But our Lord Jesus does not turn away from you or forget you.  Rather, He has literally bought you out of your enslavement to sin and death and the devil.  This He has done not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  That is the price your heavenly Groom willingly paid to purchase your freedom and to have you back with Himself.

    Just as Jesus came to Matthew, so also He came to you personally and individually in Baptism.  He called you one on one to be His disciple, washing away your sins by water and the Word and setting you on the path of life in Him.  Just as Matthew arose and followed Jesus, so also through Jesus’ Gospel call your soul has been raised from the death of sin.  Baptized into Christ, you disciples are given to follow Him through death into the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  

    In fact Jesus’ mandate to go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching is recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew himself is one of the eleven apostles who was first given this charge.  This also is a sign of God’s great grace, that when the Lord calls certain men to be apostles and pastors, He even puts into his service messed up and prideful sinners like Matthew and Paul and Peter and me.  Matthew was converted by grace from one who takes to one who gives.  Once a thief by trade, now it was his calling to freely dispense the mercy of God to the undeserving.  So is the calling of every pastor today, to go about just like Christ dishing out to repentant sinners the overflowing forgiveness of God in preaching and the Sacraments.

    Indeed, as Matthew once extracted taxes for Rome from the Jews, now we have in Matthew’s Gospel the Gospel written specifically for the Jews, that they might receive their long-promised Messiah.  That’s why Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other Gospel.  This man who had sold his soul for money was redeemed by Christ and made into a physician of souls for others.  So it is that the words St. Paul wrote about himself certainly also can be applied to St. Matthew, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.  However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.”

    Let us learn then to view the church not merely as a health club for the spiritually fit but as a hospital.  Far too many think of church as some sort of fitness center for those who want to do certain spiritual works and exercises to get themselves in good spiritual shape.  But the truth is that while the church is a place for us to grow in good works and holiness of living, the way that happens is through the Great Physician’s ministry to us.  The church is much more like a medical center for critical patients whose only hope is the treatment Jesus gives.  The church is only for the infirm.  For Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  If you think your spiritual health is just fine, then Jesus isn’t for you.  But if you know your spiritual situation to be hopeless on your own, if you’re tired of your sin-sickness, Jesus is for you.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

    That’s why Martin Luther wrote to his friend, Phillip Melancthon, telling him not to deny or downplay his sin, but rather to acknowledge and confess it honestly.  Luther said, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”  

    When you see the calling of Matthew by our Lord Jesus, you are given to see the truth of those words and of Christ’s victory.  If God can save someone like Matthew–and not only that, but make him an apostle and writer of the first Gospel–then certainly He can also save people like you.  And indeed He has.  The same mercy shown to Matthew has been shown to us all in Christ the crucified.  And just as Jesus shared a meal with tax collectors and sinners, He now also shares a meal with you, the Holy Supper, His own body and blood given and shed for you for the entire forgiveness of all of your sin.  

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

(In memory of and with thanks to the Rev. Fr. Stephen Wiest for much of the above)

Justified by Jesus

Luke 10:25-37

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

    In today’s Gospel it says that the lawyer was trying to justify himself.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that he was trying to show that he was a good person in God’s sight.  But pay careful attention to how he tried to justify himself.  He asked Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  Now why would a question like that help the lawyer to justify himself as a good person?  Very simply, it was a way of covering up the times when he hadn’t kept the commandment to love his neighbor, when he hadn’t been a good person.  For if he can narrow down who fits into that category of “neighbor,” the commandment to love becomes a bit easier to do, and then the times when he didn’t love certain other people wouldn’t count.  

    To try to justify yourself is to try to rationalize and cover up your sin.  It’s the attempt to be your own defense attorney before God and to try to find loopholes and exceptions to get yourself declared “Not guilty.”  We know the game the lawyer is playing because we do it ourselves all the time.  But it’s not a game you want to play with the Lord.  For there are no loopholes or exceptions with Him.  And in truth, the attempt to justify yourself doesn’t cover up your sin; it only adds to it.  It’s bad enough that we have an outburst of anger and yelling.  But then we make it worse by trying to cover for it or make excuses for it.  “Oh, I was just really tired.  Things have been really hard for me lately.  If you hadn’t been so difficult, I wouldn’t have lost my temper.”  It’s bad enough that we commit sexual sin or are tempted to unfaithfulness.  But then we try to deflect the blame or make it seem OK.  “It’s just natural desires that I’m following.  What’s wrong with me trying to find happiness, anyway?  If my spouse were more sensitive or more affectionate, then this wouldn’t even be an issue.”  It’s bad enough that we have our vices; but then we make it worse by trying to make them sound like virtues.  Instead of calling it love of money and pleasure, it’s “preparing for my family’s future” and “just having a little fun.”  Instead of laziness and neglect in our duties toward our neighbor, it’s “I’m just taking a little break, doing a little self-care, having a little me time.”  And just think of all the ways people try to justify skipping church.

    Trying to cover up sin is usually worse than the sin itself.  For then it’s not just that we’re sinning, but we’re embracing and holding on to our sin, holding it outside of and away from God’s mercy, rejecting God’s Word in unrepentance and unbelief.  Then we’re engaged in the futile attempt to justify ourselves when only God can truly justify us.  We’re afraid to be honest about things because we think we’re going to lose in the process or give our adversary the advantage.  But the only thing we truly have to lose is our guilt.  And the only way our adversary, the devil, truly gains the advantage over us is if we deceive ourselves with excuses and rationalizations.

    The lawyer in today’s Gospel had convinced himself that he had lived a good and holy life in God’s sight, that whatever wrongs he had done were justifiable and were so minor that they didn’t really even count.  And so Jesus tells this story of the Good Samaritan to set him straight.  We must never forget that’s the reason why Jesus speaks this parable.  It’s not merely that the Samaritan is a good example for us to follow–although he certainly is that.  Jesus’ main point is that if you think you’ve kept God’s Law well enough to inherit eternal life because you’ve done more good than bad, you are sorely mistaken.  And if you’re still trying rationalize your behavior before God, you’re only fooling yourself.  Romans 3 puts it about as clearly as possible, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight.”null

    Our Lord Jesus is saying to the lawyer and to all of us today, “Repent.  You are the man laying on the side of the road.  You are the one who has been robbed of the glory in which you were created.  Sin and Satan and the world have beaten you and left you in the ditch, physically alive, but spiritually dead.  The Law cannot save you.  It can diagnose your condition, but it offers you no medicine.  Like the priest and the Levite, it passes by on the other side.  Only I, Jesus, your Good Samaritan can rescue you.  I have come to you as a foreigner from the outside, the Son of God from heaven. Though I  am despised and rejected by the Jewish leaders as if I were a Samaritan, I have come to show you mercy and compassion.

    “As one who shares in your flesh and blood, I am here to take your place.  For I myself will be robbed and stripped of My clothing; I myself will be beaten mercilessly and left dead on a cross, buried in a grave.  But this is the way I will defeat your enemies.  This is the way I will take away their power over you.  I will take the whole curse into my body, your sickness and sin and hurt and death.  And by My divine blood I will break the curse.  Through My resurrection, I will give you new and immortal life.  You cannot win this fight by your own strength.  But I am fighting for you.  When death and the devil grab hold of My weak flesh, they will learn all too soon that they have grabbed hold of the almighty God; and I will tear them limb from limb and utterly destroy them.  I am here with you.  Lean on Me. You are safe; you are forgiven; there is nothing now that can separate you from My love.”

    The Good Samaritan Jesus comes to you and He cleans up the wounds of your sin in the waters of baptism.  He pours on the oil of His Holy Spirit to comfort you and the wine of His blood to cleanse and purify you in the Holy Supper.  He gives you lodging in the Inn which is His holy church.  Here you are continually cared for through the preaching of His words of life.  For although your sins are fully forgiven, yet the wounds of sin are not fully healed.  We still live with their effects in this world, don’t we.  The Church is the hospital where those wounds are tended to by the Great Physician, lest they become infected.  The innkeeper is the pastor; Jesus provides the innkeeper with two denarii, so that the Lord’s overflowing compassion might continue to be given to you in His ongoing ministry of the Gospel.  Jesus promises to pay whatever it takes to restore you.  For in fact He has already paid the full price, fully justifying you by His sacrifice on the cross.

    In particular, those two denarii also point us to the resurrection of Jesus.  A denarius would pay for one day’s room and board.  A two denarii stay would mean that the man would be up and out on the third day.  This is what Jesus has done for you.  He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, and He rose on the third day so that you may share in His bodily resurrection and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  It is as we heard in the OT reading: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.”

    The lawyer had asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”  And the answer to that is “everyone,” any one who crosses your path, especially someone in need.  But notice how Jesus changed the question.  He changed it from the Law to the Gospel.  He said, “Who was neighbor to the man?”  The neighbor in Jesus’ question is not on the receiving end but on the giving end of help.  So who is neighbor to you?  The answer to that question is just one; it’s Jesus.  He is the One who had mercy, who loved you as Himself.  He is the One who kept the Law for you, in your place, so that in Him you may inherit eternal life, as the Epistle said, “The Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

    Repenting and believing in Jesus, He now lives in you and through you to love and be the neighbor to others.  He frees you to “go and do likewise”–not because you have to in order to be saved, but simply because your neighbor needs you.  Since Christ became weak for us and bore all our infirmities and sorrows, we learn to see Him in those who are weak and suffering.  We show love for Him by loving them.  And even if our neighbor is not deserving, even if they are our enemy, we remember the Scripture which says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  That is precisely what the Lord has done for us, who are undeserving, who were once His enemies.

    So remember, you don’t have to keep trying to justify yourself; Jesus has taken care of that for you.  There is joy in abandoning that cover-up.  Psalm 32 prays, “I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden.  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’  And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Being honest before the Lord like that, He takes care of the covering up, as it also says in Psalm 32, “Blessed is he who transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

    You are indeed blessed in Christ by His covering of your sins with His forgiveness.  Only He can truly cover them and take them away.  Only through faith in Christ are you truly justified and put right with God.  Through Him the promised inheritance is yours, a free gift, won by His death, delivered by water and the Word, sealed by His body and blood.  As you rest and recover here in the Inn, be strengthened in the certainty that very soon your Good Samaritan will return to you as He has promised.  The risen Jesus will come again, your compassionate Lord, and you will be with Him in the perfect rest and contentment of the new creation to come.  

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

Faith Comes By Hearing

Audio Player

Mark 7:31-37
Trinity 12

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

    “Faith comes by hearing” (Romans 10:17).  That may seem like a rather ho-hum statement.  But it has some pretty significant implications.  “Faith comes by hearing.”  First of all that means that faith is not a private, individual thing.  For in order for there to be hearing, there has to be speaking.  There has to be at least two people involved.  That’s why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of them.”  The church is defined by preaching and hearing the Word.  Even in the beginning, this is how it was.  Adam was the first preacher, Eve was the first hearer.  She wasn’t there, for instance, when God gave Adam the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam, her preacher, taught her that Word of God.  Martin Luther once commented that the church is not a pen-house but a mouth-house.  It’s where the Word of God is spoken out loud and heard and discussed and meditated on.  It’s good to read your Bible on your own in private and to keep that divine Word before your eyes.  But the primary way your faith is created and sustained is through your ears.  What you believe is going to be defined by what you listen to and talk about.  Whoever has got your ears has got your heart.  Guard your ears, therefore.  Don’t think that it’s an inconsequential thing the noise you’re hearing from your TVs and radios and devices.  Christian faith can be damaged or destroyed by constantly hearing the world’s false preaching.  Saving faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.  null

    This is especially worth noting today as we begin another year of Sunday School and Bible class.  It is written in Deuteronomy 6, “These words which I command you today shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”  Talking about God’s Word is to be a normal and regular part of your life, whether it’s in your homes or in your work or here in church.  Having the words of God on our tongues and in our ears is part of how faith is exercised and sustained.  Divine Service is the heart of that.  And Bible study and discussion also need to circle around that.  After all, if you’re going to teach these things diligently to your children and grandchildren as the Deuteronomy passage said, you need to know what you’re talking about.  It won’t do for you to send them off to Sunday School while you run errands.  We all, adults especially, need to be in God’s Word constantly, talking about it, hearing it, thinking about what it means and how it connects to our lives.  For Jesus said, “My words are spirit and they are life.”  “Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.”

    This verse reminds us, then, that faith is very much a bodily thing.  It’s not just an inward, nebulous, spiritual thing.  It involves a congregation of people that gather in the flesh.  It involves bodily senses like hearing.  It involves vocal cords and tongues and eardrums.  And today’s Gospel really drives that point home.  For Jesus is incredibly hands-on, almost uncomfortably physical, in the way that he deals with and heals this deaf-mute.

    It says in the Gospel that they brought the deaf-mute to Jesus and “begged Him to put His hand on him.”  Be careful what you pray for.  You may get it, and then some.  Jesus begins by taking the man aside, privately. This isn’t for show like the TV preachers or the megachurches.  Since the man cannot hear, Jesus is going to use some actions to convey to him the nature of what he is about to do, a little sign language.  First, He puts His fingers into the man’s ears.  For as the Great Physician, He is not afraid to come into contact with what ails us.  He knows our problems first hand, literally, so that He can truly fix them.  And then Jesus spits and touches the man’s tongue.  The tongue, too, needed to be fixed.  But why spit?  This all seems a little unsanitary, earwax and saliva–not to mention that Jesus is uncomfortably close to this man, invading his space.  But this is how our Lord operates.  In order to help us, He has to unsettle us and make us a bit uncomfortable.  We have to be confronted with our natural deafness toward God, our stubborn inclination to listen to other more entertaining voices.  We have to be brought to realize that only His real, physical presence can help and save us.  Only the fingers of God in our ears, only the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word can open our ears to hear Him rightly and believe.  Only what comes from Jesus’ mouth can restore our mouths to confess the true faith and to speak His praises.  

    Jesus looks up to heaven.  As the only begotten Son of the Father, Jesus has the authority of heaven on earth to help this man.  And then Jesus sighs.  He groans.  Jesus is moved with emotion as He deals with the damage that sin has done on the earth.  He feels what this man feels, the groaning of a life of hardship.  It isn’t supposed to be like this, humans with their senses and faculties not working.  Creation is all messed up.  Romans 8 says that all creation groans. People are hurting. All this Jesus takes into Himself.  He is moved with compassion at the human condition.

null    Finally Jesus speaks a word, that odd-sounding word, “Ephphatha.”  It may sound strange, but still it is a powerful word, because Jesus speaks it. “Ephphatha” is in Jesus’ language of Aramaic. It means “Be opened; be released.”  And when Jesus speaks, things happen.  The man’s ears are opened; and he hears for the first time.  Imagine the overwhelming emotion the man felt, like those videos where someone gets a cochlear implant and is able to hear the voice of loved ones!  And it’s not just his ears that work now, but also his speaking.  His tongue is loosed and released, and he speaks clearly.  What a joyous and amazing thing!  And when the people find out what Jesus did for him, they are amazed and overjoyed also: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

    These miracles are signs from Jesus of what He will bring to all His people.  You also can look forward to the very same kind of healing from Him.  I know there are many among us who have some degree of hearing loss; for many it is very serious.  Hearing aids only help so much.  Some of you suffer from tinnitus, ringing in the ears, which is its own sort of hearing loss and ailment.  Children sometimes have tubes put in their ears to improve drainage and avoid infections and other issues.  Lots can go wrong with our ears.  And of course, ear, nose, and throat go together.  These things can affect our voice and our speaking, too.  However, at the second coming of Jesus, in the resurrection on the Last Day, none of the faithful will have any of these issues any more.  Jesus is returning to fix your bodies and renew and glorify them.  He’s coming back to redeem all of this damaged and broken creation.  He will raise your bodies, making them whole and perfect, ready to live forever in a perfectly restored creation, a new heaven and a new earth.  This is what we are looking forward to and what is promised to us as baptized believers, not just souls in heaven but bodily resurrection and restoration.  This is our sure hope and what we set our hearts on: the return of Christ, who will fix what is broken, in us and in creation, who will do all things well.

    All this comes about, not by way of implanted medical technology, but by the implanted word of Christ, the word of the cross and the resurrection. On the cross, Jesus dealt once for all with our brokenness. All the damage in the world, disease and disability and death, all the faculties and senses not working right, all the people not working right or living right or doing right–all of that is a consequence of man’s rebellion against God, man’s shutting his ears to God in favor of other voices that sound better but end up corrupting us and poisoning us. Things are messed up so thoroughly that we can’t fix it ourselves.  But there is one who can, and who does, and who will.  Jesus, the Son of God came down from heaven, took on your flesh and came finger to ear and finger to tongue with the effects of your sin, and He fixed it.  He bore your sins and all their consequences in his body, the innocent bearing the penalty of the guilty.  Jesus is your substitute and your Savior.  He sighs and groans unto death and breathes His last in order to breathe new life into you.  This is the only way our sin could be forgiven; this is the only way the damage could be undone.

    God the Father showed the victory of Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the third day.  This time it was the Father who said “Ephphatha” to the tomb, “be opened,” and He raised Jesus to life in glory.  In the same way, Jesus will speak His “Ephphatha” to your graves on the Last Day, and raise you from the dead with glorified bodies to live with him forever in righteousness and holiness.

     All of this is what was delivered to you in your baptism.  The big fixing job of Good Friday and Easter has been applied to you personally at the font.  There Jesus touched you on the forehead and the heart.  There from the mouth of the Lord water and words were splashed upon you.  There He spoke His powerful “Ephphatha” to you.  And so it happened–you are opened up to God again, released from sin and all of its consequences.  Jesus’ word delivers what it promises.  So trust in it.  It’s yours as a pure gift.  It’s your new identity as a baptized child of God.  

    Now you are able to hear the Word of God rightly and believe it. Now you are able to speak and confess the name of the Lord Jesus, your Savior.  Your ears have been opened to hear the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Your tongue has been loosed to speak plainly what God has done for you and to praise His name–and not only here, but before the world, so that their deaf ears may be opened, too, to hear the joyous melody of the Gospel, and their tongues loosed to the confess the truth of Jesus.  For He has come to restore and heal you–your souls, and also your bodies.

    So even when it seems like this fallen world, or sinful people, or your own aging bodies are getting the best of you, even as you take your last breath, you are given to say confidently with St. Paul in Philippians 3, “Christ Jesus will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body by the power the enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”  The certainty of that for you is in Christ’s body and blood placed on your tongue this day, for the forgiveness of your sins, strengthening you to endure in the faith to the end.  And so we say with the psalmist, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Charles Henrickson for some of the material adapted in the latter half of this sermon.)

The Lord Regards the Lowly

Audio Player

Luke 18:9-14 & Genesis 4:1-15

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

    It’s interesting to ponder what life must have been like in the very first family.  Right from the beginning the relationship between parents and children, between siblings, was deeply affected by the curse.  And we are given insight into that already in the way Adam and Eve named their sons.

    The name “Cain” means “acquired,” for Eve said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”  It is likely that Eve believed Cain was the Savior-offspring promised in Genesis 3 who would crush the serpent’s head.  For her words are more literally translated “I have gotten a man, the Lord.”  In other words she thought this boy was the fulfillment of God’s Word, the Redeemer come to set things right again.  So you can see how Cain certainly would have been the favored son.  He was the one in whom the family had invested its hopes.  null

    The name “Abel,” on the other hand, means “breath” or “vapor,” like the moisture of your breath on a cold day that just vanishes away.  Ecclesiastes 1 uses this word to describe life in this world as mere “vanity.”  And the Psalmist uses this word to describe our mortality as fallen human beings, saying, “Certainly every man at his best state is vapor” (Ps. 39:5).  With that name, Abel must have certainly felt his second place status in the family.  Cain was the man; he was just the younger brother.  Perhaps this resonates with some of you and how things are or were in your family life in this fallen world.

    And yet, with the Lord, the last are first and the first are last (Mt. 20:16).  For it is written in the Old Testament reading that the Lord respected and had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s.  With repentant lowliness Abel the shepherd offers His worship in humble faith, bringing the best of his flock.  As the Lord had sacrificed an animal to clothe Adam and Eve and to cover their shame, Abel brings a choice and unblemished lamb as a sacrifice of blood for atonement.  Abel knew he needed God’s mercy; he needed to be lifted out from under the curse.  His worship was right, for his hope was in the Lord.  It is written, “The Lord raises those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8).  “Though the Lord is on high, yet He regards the lowly. But the proud He knows from afar” (Ps. 138:6).  

    That’s why it is that Cain’s worship was not well received.  It is clear from the Lord’s response to Cain’s offering that his was offered faithlessly, as a mere work to be done to try to earn or keep God’s favor.  Cain the farmer came with a prideful heart, full of faith in himself, not the Lord.  Cain was willing to go through the motions, offering some of the fruit of the ground which he had cultivated.  But it was not pleasing to the Lord, because it was not offered in faith.  Instead of repenting of this and seeking the Lord, Cain became angry both with God and the one to whom God showed favor.  Cain killed Abel, spilling his brother’s blood on the ground.

    However, even in death God has regard for Abel.  For Abel is a picture of Christ, our Good Shepherd, who offers up the choicest sacrifice of His own life for us sinners.  He is the Shepherd who is also the unblemished One of the flock, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The world is full of faithless Cains who despise Christ and His people and plot His death.  And yet the very shedding of Jesus’ blood covers us who are made from the dust of the ground.  It restores us to life and gives us a share in His resurrection.  We sing it in the Lenten hymn, “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries” (LSB 433:4).  Abel points us to Christ our Brother, who was brutally killed and laid in the dust of death, but who was also vindicated in His resurrection.  And as the ground opened its mouth to receive Abel’s blood, so we now open our mouths in the Sacrament to receive the blood of Christ which cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7), including the sins that have been done to us, sometimes violently.  In Jesus the humble will be exalted (Lk 18:14).  For He was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25) so that we, too, may be raised to share in His glory.

    The Lord regards the lowly.  He justifies the one who humbly relies on His mercy.  He declares the penitent believer to be righteous.  The difference between Cain and Abel, then, is precisely also the difference between the Pharisees and the tax collector.  Both approach God in worship.  But the way in which the Pharisee approaches is radically different from the tax collector.null

    Like Cain, the Pharisee is full of faith in Himself.  He does reference God in his little praise service, but he’s really the star of his own show, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  The Pharisee, too, would wish his brother the tax collector dead, were it not for the fact that the tax collector makes him look so good by comparison. And please note here: the Pharisee’s problem was not his sense of right and wrong; that’s basically on target.  It’s good not to be an extortioner or an adulterer.  It’s good to fast and to give the 10% tithe of what you possess.  “The Law of God is good and wise and sets His will before our eyes.”  But, we use the Law lawlessly if we try to turn it into a way to justify ourselves in God’s presence, as if God owes us something now for our good living.  “God, I thank you that I’m not like those people I see on TV and in the news–criminals and weirdos and perverts.  I thank you that I was raised to be a good person and that I love my family and my country.”  That’s not the worship of God but ourselves.  That’s mirror worship.  Such faith is bent away from God back in on the worshiper.  It is the idolatry of the self.  And that sin, the sin of pride and self-righteousness is no better than any of the other sins the Pharisee lists.

    In fact, in many ways the sin of pride is worse and more dangerous.  For outwardly it can still appear to be good.  It’s the you that looks great behind your manicured lawn or on social media.  However, it is written, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).  And the heart, Jeremiah says, is deceitful and desperately wicked.  The Law of God is indeed good and wise, but as the hymn also said, “Its light of holiness imparts the knowledge of our sinful hearts, that we may see our lost estate, and seek escape before too late.”  That’s why pride is the first of the so-called seven deadly sins.  After all, if you're prideful, if you don’t think you’re desperately lost, why would you need a Savior?

    When all is said and done, the Pharisee and the tax collector are in the exact same condition.  Though one looks good and impressive and the other doesn’t, both share the same heart disease called sin.  Both of them are foul and unclean within.  The tax collector is showing symptoms of his sin-disease, whereas the Pharisee seems to have his mostly under control.  But both have the same root disorder; both are just a heartbeat away from death, as the Epistle says, “You were dead in trespasses and sins.”  

    Let me ask you:  Who’s in the better position, the man about to go in for heart surgery or the one unaware that he has the same condition who’s about to keel over dead?  Who’s in the better position before God, the Pharisee who falsely thinks that everything’s fine, or the tax collector who understands the true diagnosis?  Learn from the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Believe the terminal diagnosis that the Law has made about you.  Humble yourself before God in true repentance; seek His healing, His cleansing, His righteousness.

    For it is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise.”  The Lord certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did.  The tax collector comes not in pride but in lowly penitence and sincere faith.  He stands afar off from those praying in the temple; for he knows how his sin cuts him off from God and others.  He does not raise his eyes to heaven; for he knows he deserves no heavenly blessing.  He beats his chest when he prays, in token that he is worthy to be punished severely.  He cries out his only hope, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”

    The tax collector places his confidence and trust not in anything about himself but entirely in the Lord and His mercy.  He despairs of his own merits and character and entrusts himself completely to the merits and character of God.  He relies not on his own sacrifice but on God’s sacrifice.  For when the tax collector prays for mercy, he uses a word that has to do with the offering up of the animals there in the temple.  He desires the atonement for sin that only God can provide through the shedding of blood.  Remember, it was at these times of public prayer in the temple when an animal would be sacrificed on the altar according to God’s command to cover the sins of the people.  Therefore, at the very moment in which the tax collector prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” his prayer is being answered right there in the sacrifice which the Lord provided.  The tax collector trusted in the Lord’s sacrificial mercy, and he yearned for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all these things to their fulfillment.

    In the end, it is the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, declared righteous in God’s sight.  And so it is for each of you who pray in humility and penitent faith, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”  For the sacrifice has also been made for you–not in the temple, but in Jesus’ body, on the cross.  There Christ, the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all.  By His shed blood your sins have been fully atoned for, and you have been put right with God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  You are justified before God, declared righteous in His sight through Christ.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  It’s all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s what we boast and brag about.

    “He who humbles Himself will be exalted.”  That statement is fulfilled in Jesus, who humbled Himself even unto death for you, and who is now exalted to the highest place at the Father’s right hand.  God grant this also to be true of you in Christ.  Like Abel, like the tax collector, let us offer up true worship, which is faith and hope in the Lord’s mercy.  Humble yourselves before Him, confident that He will lift you up in due time.  And you, too, will go down to your houses today justified and righteous.

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