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Golden Calf or Lamb of God?

Exodus 32:1-20
Trinity 25

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

    The people of Israel got impatient waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.  It had been more than a month that he was gone.  They gave up on him even though the Lord had chosen him to lead them.  They decided that the Word of the Lord they had heard wasn’t enough; they wanted to have a god or an image which they could see to go before them, something more like what they were used to from their Egyptian background when they were slaves.  They grew bored with the mighty acts the Lord had done for them in the Passover and the Red Sea.  They wanted something visually stimulating that fit in more with the culture of the day, something that met their needs right now.

    Aaron gave in to the will of the people.  He wasn’t a faithful pastor.  He told them to bring their gold earrings to him, he melted the gold down, and made a golden calf from it.  A golden calf was a sign of fertility, of growth and success.  Then the people said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  This was the kind of worship they liked.null

    Aaron knew deep down, though, that this wasn’t right.  So he tried to make things kosher.  He built an altar before the golden calf and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.”  In other words, he tried mix two things together, using this calf as part of the worship of the Lord.  He had what you might call a blended service.  He wasn’t abandoning the faith, he thought; he was just combining the faith with what was socially acceptable.  His plan was to use the style of the image, but godly substance.  He tried to please the people and to please the Lord at the same time.

    But that didn’t work too well, did it?  It says here that the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.  The “play” that is mentioned is the kind of play you would expect to have in the presence of a fertility god like the golden calf, indulgence leading to immorality.  That’s one way to keep the people happy.

    We are of the same stock as the children of Israel.  We have the same fallen nature that they did.  And so we also can be tempted to grow impatient as we wait for the Lord to come down from heaven, to return for the final judgment on the Last Day.  We too can begin to wonder if it’s ever really going to happen, and in the meantime to grow bored with the mighty acts the Lord has done for us in His death and resurrection and in our baptism.  “Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  Boring.”  The Scriptures urge us to wait on the Lord and to devote ourselves to His teaching and preaching.  But we want something immediately gratifying, that will make us feel the way we want to feel and get us where we want to be in life and meet our needs right now.  We want worship to be what we’re comfortable with and interested in and entertained by.

    And so pastors and congregations can be tempted to try to mix the church and the world in their worship.  But we learn from Aaron’s experience here that even though you call it the worship of the Lord, in the end it turns out to be idolatry.  For instance, mix the teaching of Jesus with political ideology–socialism, captalism, libertarianism, communism, fascism–and you end up with idolatry, where the true God becomes less important than social agendas or national unity or material prosperity.  The Lord isn’t the focus but merely a means to achieve those ends.  Or mix the teaching of Jesus with pop psychology, and you get pastors whose main strength isn’t preaching the truth about sin and the cross but telling humorous stories and delivering sermons about “7 steps toward better relationships” or “Biblical dieting” or “How to be the best version of yourself.”  Again, the Lord isn’t central but just part of the formula for some supposedly greater goal.  Or mix the true worship of the Lord with the ways of cultural media, and you end up with screens in church that inevitably distract from the cross and the altar, with drama performances and singers who give the impression that the front of the church is a stage rather than a holy space where God is truly present in His words and sacraments.  The goal is not communion with the true God, but achieving spiritual and religious “feels.”  That’s really our cultural idol today, anything that gives you all the right feels.  Like the children of Israel, we tend to want what we’re used to in the world, with the emphasis more on visuals than on the Word, on emotion than on truth.  That’s what we’re willing to give up a little gold for.  Go ahead and keep the Lutheran substance, but give me a little worldly style.  The problem is that the worldly style almost always drowns out the Word of truth.

    And I should point out that this works in the opposite direction, too, where we invest worldly things with almost sacred significance.  Sporting events have their own liturgy of when to do what and how to show reverence to the game, and God forbid if anyone messes with it.  Fans engage in the rituals of their team with great fervor, where even Christians are often much more willing to talk about the things of the sport than the things of the Gospel, exhibiting more passion for the events of Sunday afternoon than Sunday morning.  And the same sorts of things can be said about much of our entertainment–concerts and performances and events–where the goal is to create a communal experience that fulfills the need for something mystical and even spiritual.  

    We all would do well to pay attention to what happened when Moses came down from the mountain and saw what was going on.  He became hot with anger, ground the calf which they had made into powder, scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink it.  Their false god was destroyed, and they were forced to drink up and share in that destruction.  So it will be also on the Day of Christ’s return for all those who have turned their hearts away from Him to other things.  They will have to drink the cup of eternal judgment that is fitting for their idolatrous loves.

    Let this portion of the Scriptures, then, be a call to repentance for all of us.  For whether it has to do with worship or other aspects of our lives, we all know the temptation to go along with the crowd like Aaron did, to conform to the world’s ways of thinking and doing things.  Let us rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, setting our hearts on things above where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God.  Let us not simply focus on what is temporary but on what is eternal, what lasts for all times and places and even beyond time.  Seek the treasures of Christ, which cannot be ground to powder or destroyed but which are indestructible and endure forever.

    Those treasures of Christ are the real and proper focus of divine service.  Church is meant to be not like the culture and the world, but like heaven.  Church is where heaven and earth intersect, where Christ Himself is truly present among us in His preaching and body and blood.  That’s why in the liturgy we sing the songs of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  Going into church is to be like stepping into another world.  And that occurs not primarily through what we see but through what we hear, as it is written, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  That Word of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain and raised again, is the constant center of our attention in worship.  

    Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’  For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  Faith isn’t all that impressed with what can be seen with the eyes; faith relies on the ears.  We don’t put our confidence in what is visually appealing, but what appeals to our hearing, the true and pure Word of God.  The kingdom of God is truly in our midst because Christ the King Himself is truly among us right here, even though He remains unseen to ordinary sight.  The kingdom of God is wherever the flesh-and-blood Jesus is–wherever He is speaking His words to His people and giving Himself to them in order that they may have His forgiveness and share in His life.  Being joined to Christ through faith, we have entrance already here on earth into the heavenly kingdom of God.

    Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment for us what Moses did for Israel on the mountain.  Remember that God’s wrath was burning hot against the Israelites because of their idolatry, and He said to Moses that He was going to destroy them all.  But Moses spoke up and interceded for Israel.  He called to mind God’s salvation of Israel and the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses stepped in the way of God’s wrath in order to save Israel.  And the Lord relented from the harm and the disaster He was going to do to His people, and He did not do it.

    Isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done for you?  When God’s wrath was burning hot against you and the whole world because of sin, the Son of God stepped in the way of that wrath and took it all for you in His own body on the cross.  When Jesus was crucified, He suffered hell for you so that you would be spared and set free.  In Jesus God the Father relents from giving you what you deserve and instead gives you forgiveness and life through faith in Him.  

    Even now Jesus is still stepping in and interceding and speaking up in your defense.  He is your greater Moses, pointing to the blood He shed on your behalf that declares you “not guilty,” calling to mind the divine promises that have been applied to you, that the name of the Holy Trinity is upon you, that you believe and are baptized.  It is written in I John, “If anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And Romans 8 says, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

    So let us then wait patiently for the return of Christ, even if it seems like it’s taking forever.  Let us look forward to the Last Day, not dreading it as a day of doom that we need to fear, but as something to look forward to and eagerly desire.  For our judgment day already occurred almost 2000 years ago at Calvary.  God took care of your judgment on the cross.  It’s over and done with.  Believe in that truth.  All that remains for you now is mercy and life.  Jesus tells you to look up and lift up your heads and watch for His return.  For your salvation is nearer now than when you first believed.  You who are baptized are not those of the golden calf; you are those of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

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

Created Male and Female

Genesis 1:26-27
Trinity 21

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

    The way that Satan attacks God is by attacking those who are made in the image of God.  We need to recognize, especially in today’s cultural context, that the devil’s #1 goal is to corrupt and pollute and ultimately destroy our humanity.  The way Satan lashes out at the Creator is by assaulting the crown of God’s creation, human beings.

    In particular, the devil is now attacking the most basic reality of our humanity, namely, that we are created male and female.  And here’s the way he does it: it starts with a lie that has actually been around for millennia.  The lie goes like this: material things are bad, or at least unimportant, and spiritual things are good.  The body is supposedly just a shell that you eventually cast aside; the soul is what counts.  It’s not outward things like maleness or femaleness but inward things that matter.  But do you see how that philosophy is a rejection of the Creator?  For what did God declare about His creation?  He said that it was good, even very good!  This is the way we should think of physical, bodily, material things; for they are created by God.  They’re not lower level stuff; they are good just as much as our souls are.  To be sure this fallen creation now groans under the curse of decay and death because of sin.  But the problem is sin, not the material creation.  Besides, if you think about it, sin is as much a matter of the soul as it is of the body; for all sin begins in the heart.

    Body and soul are one; they go together.  Too often we try to separate them into different categories, body over here, soul over there, and the soul just sort of rattles around in this bodily container for a while till death when it is set free.  But that’s not how it is.  Remember how Adam was created?  God formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him.  That life is the soul.  It’s not as if there are some pre-existing souls floating around up in heaven somewhere, and when a woman gets pregnant, God sends a soul down to the little unborn baby.  Sadly, in fact, that’s how many people try to justify abortion.  They say the baby doesn’t have a soul until later in the pregnancy or until they’re born; so killing the unborn child is OK.  But of course that’s wrong.  At the moment of conception, God creates a new human person, including a new human soul.  The soul is the life of the body, the unique person that God creates.  null

    This means that the soul is not just a generic spirit.  If you’re a man, you have a male soul.  If you are a woman, you have a female soul.  None of this silliness that a man can be trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa.  The soul is the life of that particular male or female body.  It is a demonic lie which tries to separate soul and body as if they’re two separate things, or as if they could be mismatched.  To say so is to rebel against the Creator and reject His creation of the body.  Now it’s true that under the curse, all sorts of things can go wrong with our bodies, as well as our minds, and so sometimes people will struggle with various feelings.  But since that’s a consequence of sin, it’s not something a person should embrace but something they should fight against with God’s help.  The way of faith is not to trust our feelings or the deceitfulness of our sinful hearts, but to trust God’s creative Word and His creating work.  That is what is for sure and certain, unlike our feelings which are always shifting.

    So let me put this in practical terms: when it comes to the current transgender fad–dare I call it the transgender contagion–we should never call someone by a designation of sex other than the one God gave them.  We don’t choose our own identity, it is given to us by God.  So if a man has supposedly transitioned to being a woman, it is not for us to deny reality, to deny the Creator, and call that man a “she.”  It’s Bruce, not Caitlyn, despite the game of pretend that’s being played.  If we call a person by their preferred pronoun which is contrary to their creation, we are joining in on a lie and giving support to the devil’s attempt to corrupt our humanity.  It’s pure hypocrisy to say transgender ideology is wrong, and then when confronted with an actual example of it to join in on the make-believe.  Christians refer to reality as God defines it, not as man defines it.  

    Now, I should hasten to add here, that in all things we should act with compassion and not behave like jerks.  In many of these cases there are serious spiritual and bodily and mental issues in play.  We want to help the people involved if at all possible and work to bring them back to the way of faith in God’s creative and redeeming work.  Since the people involved are created in the image of God, we’re not there to put them down but to help lift them up to fullness of life in Christ.  But that simply can’t be accomplished by affirming the mutilation of the body with surgeries and the pollution of the body with opposite sex hormones, especially when this is tragically being perpetrated on children.  Faith in the Creator means embracing our bodily creation by Him.

    “Male and female He created them.”  Two sexes, two genders, complementary to one another and created for one another for the one flesh union of holy marriage.  Which brings us to another way in which the devil seeks to degrade our humanity, namely through same sex unions and so-called same sex marriages.  Again, the only way this can be embraced and accepted is if you deny the way in which God created our bodies.  Only male and female form the wholeness and the fulness of what our humanity is.  And only male and female can be God’s instrument in creating new life.  Same sex unions are by definition contrary to the Creator, for they are sterile and non-creating–not for reasons of health or age which couples sometimes face–but by their very nature.  God’s Word says that one of the primary purposes of marriage is that man and woman be fruitful and multiply.  Same sex unions do not reflect the image of God, the Holy Trinity, for they cannot create that triad of life.

    So again, let me put this in practical terms: you may well believe correctly that homosexual unions are sinful, just as any sexual union outside of God-given marriage is sinful.  But how do you deal with this when you are confronted with it in your day to day life?  If a man refers to his “husband” or a woman to her “wife,” do you join in with using that terminology?  The language and the words we use are important–for they either express the truth of the living words of God in Holy Scripture or the lying words of the evil one.  It’s one thing to have to live under the ungodly laws of the land–and we do obey the civil laws insofar as we aren’t caused to sin.  As Scripture says, our default position is to “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).  But above all, as Scripture also says, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  You should never talk as if these so-called marriages are actually real in anything more than a purely legal sense.  Before God, they are nothing but a rebellious illusion.  And we want no part in that.

    In particular, here’s a situation that some of you may have had to face, and I’m sure it will be happening with greater frequency in the future: what do you do if you’re invited to a same-sex wedding?  This isn’t easy, because it may well be a family member or relative, a co-worker or client or friend who’s doing the inviting.  There’s a lot at stake in how you handle this.  As Christians we want to be clear that we don’t hate anyone or wish ill on anyone; there are no “phobias” at work.  “Phobia” means “fear”; this isn’t about fear for Christians but truth.  And if we really love the people involved as we should, we want to speak the truth for their eternal good.  You’re not loving someone if you’re “supporting” them in their sin and false belief.  It’s not kindness to show up and smile politely at actions that threaten to cut them off from God forever.  (E.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10)

    So let me put the matter as clearly as I can.  There is simply no way in good conscience that a Christian can attend and be a part of the celebration of a so-called same sex wedding.  To do so is wrong and against God’s will.  First of all, examine what your motives have to be for taking part if you know that the whole thing is forbidden by God.  If it’s that you fear harming a relationship, doesn’t that mean that you fear people more than God, or put another way, that you love people and care about what they think more than God?  We like to fool ourselves into believing that if we can just maintain the relationship, that eventually we’ll be able to bring people around to the truth of God’s Word.  But in reality we just keep putting things off, and that time is always at some unspecified point in the future.  Meanwhile, our actions speak volumes to the contrary.  Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”  Or perhaps you fear some job-related, financial consequence.  There might be some blowback from a co-worker or client.  And so you try to play both sides and serve two masters.  But again Jesus clearly says, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).  “One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).

    Some might say, “But didn’t Jesus eat with sinners?”  And the answer is, of course He did!  There is no sinner that Jesus would not engage with, including sexual sinners, and the same should be true for us.  But what was Jesus doing when He sat at table with them?  What was his message when He spoke to them?  It was this: “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus came calling sinners to repentance.  He came to seek and to save the lost.  He never condoned sin; He forgave sin.  But a same sex wedding is by its very nature an unrepentant approval of sin.  Now, if you can go to a same sex wedding ceremony and call the couple involved to repentance (not to mention everyone else who is approving of this rejection of the Creator), then that would be an exception to the rule.  But of course, that’s not going to happen.  When you go to a wedding, you’re obliged to be pleasant and nice, to laugh at the jokes, to congratulate the couple and the rest of the family, to give them a gift celebrating their union, to act as if everything is just fine and wonderful.  But the flowers and the fancy clothes are only covering rebellion against God.  And this is made all the worse if it takes place in a church, a blasphemy of God’s name.  It’s not angels that are rejoicing in these events, it’s demons.  And we should never join in with the worship of demons.

    We need to wake up to what’s happening.  These things are some of the defining issues of our times.  They are a test that you may well soon be faced with.  It’s easy to justify our actions and take the broad easy road rather than the narrow way.  But let us take the early Christian church as our example.  All they had to do to save their lives and their means of making a living was to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar and acknowledge him as Lord instead of Jesus.  They easily could have rationalized such actions by saying that they were doing those things insincerely, just going through the motions of idolatry, merely mouthing a curse against Christ to save their skins.  But they didn’t.  They would rather lose their lives than to do that.  And that’s how the church grew.  It didn’t grow based on the lukewarm compromise of those who loved their lives in this world, but because of the passionate faith of those who believed in a Creator who could and would raise their bodies from the dead to glory, even if they were mauled by lions or burned at the stake.  That sincere faith and love of God inspired others and eventually won over an empire.

    So let us, then, commit ourselves never to offer the modern pinch of incense to the gods of this world but steadfastly to hold to our confession of faith in the God of creation, the blessed Holy Trinity.  For we have a God who not only created us and our physical natures, but when we had fallen into sin and under the curse of death, He reaffirmed the goodness of His creation by entering into it Himself!  The Son of God, Jesus Christ, took up our human nature in order to restore our humanity again.  What does Scripture say?  “The Word became flesh.”  Notice the Gospel writer uses the most blatantly earthy word possible there–not just “body” but “flesh.”  And when Jesus shared in our flesh, He made it holy.  Through Him all things were made in the beginning, and through Him all things are recreated by the power of His death and resurrection.  Jesus died in the flesh to purge our human nature of its sin, and He rose again in the flesh so that we might also share in His bodily resurrection to glory in the new creation to come.  In the midst of our earthly groaning, we eagerly wait for the redemption of our bodies through our blood brother in the flesh, Jesus (Romans 8:23).

    The devil may do His worst to try to turn God’s creation upside down and corrupt and pollute it.  But Satan has been defeated.  For Jesus has cleansed your humanity forever by joining it to His own divine nature.  Your human nature is now holy and pure in Christ.  Even if you have polluted yourself in the past through various sins, your sins are forgiven and washed away from you forever through faith in His holy, precious blood.  Our maleness and femaleness is an image of how God is a husband to His chosen people, how Christ the holy Groom gives Himself and lays down His life for His elect Lady.  The Church is the baptized Bride of Christ, chosen and precious to Him.  

    So whatever you were before, you are now set apart and sanctified as God’s holy people, His beloved.  And His Word is still powerful to accomplish what it says.  Jesus said to the man in the Gospel “Your son lives,” and he did.  So also He says to you, “Your sins are forgiven.  Fear not.  I have called you by name; you are Mine.”  And it is so.

    Therefore, fellow believers in Jesus, in the midst of the spiritual warfare that we are in on every front, put on the breastplate of His righteousness and the helmet of His freely given salvation.  Take up the sword of the Spirit for the battle, which is the Word of God.  And in all circumstances raise the shield of faith in Christ, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.  

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

A Located God

Genesis 28:10-17
Trinity 19

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

    How would you answer the question, “Where is God?”  Many would say, “God is in heaven,” or “God is in my heart,” or “God is in nature,” or “God is everywhere.”  Those answers are certainly not wrong; and yet, they are not the best answers that we can give as Lutheran Christians.  For a god who is just everywhere is a god who is really nowhere.  A god who is merely everywhere is nowhere in particular for me.  I’m no closer to him in one place than in another.  OK, He’s everywhere, but how do I have access to Him?  How do I see Him and hear Him and come into contact with Him?  It’s like He’s always just two feet away but on the other side of a solid brick wall, and there are no doors to get through.

    We learn from passages like today’s Old Testament reading that our God is One who is not merely everywhere but one who puts Himself somewhere, in specific places for His people.  He’s not just “out there,” above and beyond us; nor is He “in here,” coming to us from within ourselves.  Rather, God has located Himself in particular, identifiable places for us and for our good.  He’s not above locating Himself right where we’re at.null

    In the Old Testament account, Jacob was on a last-minute trip out of the country.  He took this trip for two reasons.  First, he was running for his life.  By deceiving his blind father Isaac into thinking he was the older son, Jacob had just stolen the family blessing from his brother Esau.  You may recall how Jacob used the goat skin on his arms to accomplish the deception.  Hairy-skinned Esau was furious about this and consoled himself by making plans to kill Jacob.  However, while Jacob was fleeing from his brother’s anger, he used this opportunity to go to the land of his mother’s family and find a wife.  For Jacob’s parents didn’t want him to marry one of the local pagan Canaanites.  So Jacob was making this journey certainly with a mixture of emotions–both with fear for his life because of his brother, but also with some degree of anticipation because he was hopefully about to get married and establish his own household.

    Jacob is a lot like us, isn’t he.  For the fact of the matter is that as we walk the journey of our lives, few of us have it all together, either.  Rather, our lives are generally more like Jacob’s–a mixture of good things and bad.  We move through life trying to make the best out of what we’re confronted with.  In some ways we’re running from our past with a little bit of fear of what’s going to happen to us.  In other ways we’re looking forward to the future with anticipation.  Our lives, too, are usually a little more mixed up and complicated than we’d like them to be.

    And quite honestly, we, like Jacob, are often the cause of our own problems.  Deception is an art that we also can practice.  We too know how to put the goatskin on our arms, so to speak, to use manipulation and subtlety to make things go our way.  But there are times when that subtlety backfires on us and things happen that we didn’t foresee.  Our lives are often muddled because of the fact that, like Jacob, we are fallen human beings, unable to know God rightly or even take one step towards Him.  A great canyon lies between us and God that we are incapable of crossing.

    However, to this far from perfect man named Jacob, in the middle of his mixed up life, God came in grace.  During the night God gave Jacob a special vision in which he saw a ladder extending from heaven down to where he was.  And please notice that this ladder wasn’t for climbing!  The only ones on this ladder were angels ascending and descending.  The whole point of the ladder is that God and God alone bridges the gap between Himself and sinners.  He comes all the way to us, because we’re incapable of moving even one inch towards Him.  

    God came down to Jacob and gave Him two wonderful promises.  First of all, the Lord confirmed to him the same promise that was given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, namely, that all the earth would be blessed through him and his seed.  And we know that God kept that promise.  For Jacob’s other name was Israel, and out of the descendants of Israel came Him who is the promised Seed, our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.  Through Him all the world is indeed blessed.  

    And in the meantime, God made a second promise to Jacob–to be with him wherever he went, to protect him, and to bring him safely back home.  The Lord said, “I will not leave you.”  God broke into Jacob’s world, then, also for the purpose of comforting him and putting his mind at ease–not because Jacob deserved it, but because of God’s awesome mercy in using even ordinary fallen people like him to carry out His plan of rescuing mankind from sin and its grave consequences.

    The good news for us is this:  God has also broken into our world in a decisive way for our good, just as He did for Jacob.  Listen to John chapter 1 where Jesus spoke about Himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  Jesus purposefully used the very imagery of this Old Testament reading to describe Himself and His mission.  Jacob’s ladder is a prophecy of Christ.  For Christ is the true ladder between heaven and earth.  He is the One who has bridged the gap between God and us.  He is the One who, being true God, came down right to where we're at and took on our human flesh in order to rescue and comfort us.  The omnipresent, everywhere God located Himself for us in Jesus Christ, the descendant of Jacob, so that we could know what God is like and so that we could hear and receive His saving promises.

    Jacob responded appropriately, in the way of faith, by receiving God's promises for what they were, and by worshiping Him there.  Jacob understood what a wondrous thing God had done in stepping into the world in that place.  And so He set up the stone which was at his head as a pillar, and he called that place "Bethel," which means, "House of God."  For God wasn't just everywhere for Jacob.  He was in that particular location for him.  Jacob rightly said, "How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!"  

    And God’s promises to us center in this:  that this located God, Jesus Christ, stood with us and in our place to rescue us.  He did this by living a sinless life for us and by being executed on a cross to receive our punishment as our stand-in.  God Himself not only came down to where we're at and bridged the sin-gap in Jesus Christ, but He also received in His own person, His own body, the penalty for our fallenness.  Having now risen again to life and ascended to the right hand of the Father, Christ has promised and assured us that in Him we are completely delivered from judgment; we are restored to a right relationship with God through Him.×

    Just as was the case with Jacob, God has given us promises which calm our fears and ease our minds, even right now in the middle of our mixed-up lives.  God has said that He will continue, even today, to put Himself in particular places for us, to help and comfort and guide us.

    The words that God spoke to Jacob He speaks to us at the holy font, "I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you."  The Lord is there for you in and through holy baptism.  For when He commanded it, Jesus said, "I am with you always, even to the close of the age."  "I have called you by name; you are mine."  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is truly present in that water to choose people as His own, to create faith and forgive sins.  Whenever a pastor baptizes someone according to Christ's mandate, you can say with certainty, "God is there; right there."

    The Lord is also truly present in His words.  The Scriptures aren't just some nice history book with a few teachings about morality.  Rather, they are the living words of Christ through which the Holy Spirit brings us to repentance and grants us saving faith in Christ.  Wherever God's Word is, wherever it is preached and taught rightly, you can say without a doubt, "God is there; I heard the voice of God today."

    And God is really present in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Christ's very body and blood are there under the bread and wine.  Through this Supper God reconfirms His promise of forgiveness and life and strengthens us to live as His own dearly loved people.  It was angels that ascended and descended on Jacob's ladder.  So also, as we come into the Lord's very presence in communion, we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to laud and magnify God's glorious name.  As we gather around the Lord's altar, we can say the words of Jacob with complete assurance and boldness, "The Lord is in this place."

    All of this is nothing more than a restatement of Jesus' words, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them."  God is not just everywhere.  He has located Himself somewhere, in particular places for us.  Sure, you can pray to God at home or in your fishing boat.  But it’s only in divine service that the Lord is here in the flesh for you. That’s why we prayed in the Psalm “(O Lord,) one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”

    Jacob said, "'Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.'  And he was afraid."  So it is that you are called today to believe with Jacob that the Lord is truly here and to have that due sense of fear and reverence that comes with being in the very presence of your Maker.  As it is written, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."  When God calls us to faith in Him, He calls us to believe not only in what Christ did long ago but also what He does among us still today.

    Which brings us, then, to conclude with our original question.  Where is God?  He is in Christ for us.  And where is Christ?  He is here, in His words and sacraments.  This is the Portal through which we hear and come into contact with our Lord.  Therefore, we say together with Jacob, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

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

No Shame

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

    There is a verse in today’s Old Testament reading that sounds exactly like what the prophet Jeremiah would say if he were preaching today and addressing our nation’s cultural elite and our politicians and our wishy-washy progressive church leaders.  Jeremiah asks, “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination?  No!  They were not at all ashamed, nor did they know how to blush.”  One of the signs of unrepentance and acceptance of sin is that you lose all sense of shame and embarrassment.  Instead of blushing at the thought of some disgraceful sin, you just shrug your shoulders and say, “Meh, whatever.”  This is how it was for the people of Israel.  They had become so accustomed to the various abominations of their day that they were no longer able to be embarrassed.  They had no sense of shame over their false dealings and their covetous hearts and their sacrilegious deeds.  Even when a prophet like Jeremiah would call them to account, nothing could make them blush.

    And so it is today.  It seems the only thing that brings shame and disgrace any more is when people openly agree with God’s Word.   If you say that Christianity and faith in Jesus is the only way to eternal life, if you say that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, if you say that transgenderism is nothing less than an abuse and mutilation of the body God created, then you are considered to be hateful and bigoted and closed-minded.  Just this past week I was watching an otherwise family friendly show on broadcast TV where a man was talking about his husband as if that were perfectly normal and good and not something corrupt and shameful.  Or the next day I was listening to a morning radio personality give a tribute to fallen Milwaukee police officer Michael Michalski.  And in the process the radio personality made statements of how God created human beings imperfect(?!) and how He gives us all the choice and the ability to atone for ourselves.  And I think this radio personality would think of himself as a Christian.  But there was no mention of the Jesus that Michalski believed in, the One who atoned for his and all of our sins, just more of the ignorant belief that we are responsible for our own salvation.  Everything seems upside down and backwards–not only in the world but even in the church, where pastors and priests cast aside the Word of God for worldly acceptance and success and approve of falsehood in the very sanctuary of God.  And even when error is pointed out and the truth is spoken in love, very often there is no shame, no embarrassment, no repentance and change, no blushing and returning to the Lord.null

    Let us be on guard, then, that we aren’t drawn in to adopt the ways of the world and become numb to the truth.  Do we still think of a sexual relationship outside of God-given marriage as shameful, as Romans 1 describes it?  Or is it so common and accepted that we say, “Meh, whatever.  No big deal.”  Have we lost our ability to blush at such things?  Or when faced with the opportunity to do something a little unethical with work or business dealings or taxes, do we shamelessly justify our covetousness with the thought that everyone else is doing it these days anyway?  Too often, it’s not just the world; even we Christians engage in crude joking, dishonor authority, view media we shouldn’t be viewing, harbor grudges, join in gossip, devote our hearts to stuff rather than God–all without feeling any particular shame, even when we’re confronted about it.  Scripture says that lawsuits between Christians and keeping bad company are causes for “shame” (1 Corinthians 6:5; 15:33-34).  Ephesians 5 says that it is shameful even to speak of the unfruitful works of darkness done by the wicked in secret.  So it is that Jeremiah prophesies, “No man repented of his wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done?’... From the prophet even to the priest everyone deals falsely.”

    However, let us also be on guard against the opposite error as well.  For when we see the corrupt and degenerate state of things, we can be tempted to stake our hope on our own moral efforts and our own upright living.  We can begin to place our confidence in the fact that we ourselves haven’t succumbed to the ways of the world, or at least that we’ve turned our lives around now.  We can begin to think that our works and our righteousness will keep us close to God and win His favor.  And such a false belief is just as bad as society’s corruption.

    St. Paul spoke of that in the Epistle for today.  He said that the Jews of his day did have a zeal and a passion for God; they were very religious.  But rather than receiving the righteousness God gives in Christ as a free gift, they thought they could produce their own righteousness through the works of the law.  And that’s actually just another form of idolatry, trusting in yourself, making a god out of your own spirituality.  Self-righteousness is no better than sinful immorality.  When you think about it, those who are self-righteous can’t blush either.  For they think they have no real sins to be embarrassed about, nothing to be ashamed of.

    Let us remember then that it is not enough to have religious conviction or spiritual passion as the Jews did.  For too often that zeal and passion are man-centered rather than God-centered, focusing on my works and my life and my walk rather than on Christ’s works and Christ’s life and Christ’s walk to the cross for us.  Our fervor should especially be directed toward the life-giving teaching of the Gospel and not simply to the deadly requirements of the Law.  

    St. Paul says in the Epistle, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  Did you hear that?  Christ is the end, the completion, the goal of the law.  That doesn’t mean that you are free to disobey the commandments.  But it does mean that the entire law is meant to point you to Jesus, and show you your need for Him who has saved you from the Law’s judgment.  That’s why shame is an important and necessary thing.  For without regret and shame over sin, there is nothing to drive you to the cross, to create in you a desire for cleansing and mercy and forgiveness.  The Law says, “Shame on you” so that you might despair of your own righteousness and seek the righteousness of Christ alone, freely given to you in the Gospel.  

    All of the moral demands of the law have been satisfied and kept completely by Christ for you.  All of the old ceremonial regulations pertaining to the Sabbath and circumcision and sacrifices find their fulfillment in Christ, the perfect sacrifice, who was cut off for your sins and raised again to give you life and rest.  

    Christ came to take your shame away by taking your sin away.  It is written in Hebrews, “For the joy that was set before Him,” Jesus “endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  All that He did because He loves you.  He was shamed and humiliated more than anyone as He faced God’s wrath and paid sin’s penalty at Golgotha.  And then He rose triumphantly, so that His victory over sin and shame might be yours as well.  Now the Epistle proclaims to you that “everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame.”

    I’m sure that all of us could be truly humiliated and shamed and embarrassed if something about us was made publicly known and revealed to the world.  All of us have reason to blush.  Rejoice, then, that even though all of those things are revealed in the eyes of God, He has chosen by His grace to cover your shame, just as Adam and Eve were covered and clothed by God after the sin in the garden.  Your shame was swallowed up in the wounds of Jesus.  In Him your dignity is restored so that you need not cower before God, but you can stand tall and unashamed as His dear children, clothed in the white robe of Christ.

    Jesus weeps and cries over those who do not know their shame, who think they have nothing to be blush about before God, who see no need for a Savior.  That’s why He weeps over Jerusalem, out of love.  It’s bad enough that their unbelief would result in the destruction of the city by the Romans within a generation.  But He weeps especially over their rejection of Him, that they do not want the life and mercy He brings.  God Himself was visiting them in the flesh.  But they did not know the things that made for their peace.

    Let us learn from this so that we may recognize the time of our visitation by God.  It has come upon in Jesus; and it is coming upon you right now, even in this very moment.  This is the hour in which Christ Himself is coming to you in the words of His saving Gospel now sounding in your ears.  Let us penitently acknowledge our shame, and then let us take courage and believe firmly and gladly in Christ.  Don’t assume that you’ll have forever to repent.  It is written, “Behold now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”  Don’t let this time of your visitation pass you by.  Believe in what the Lord has done to redeem you from your sin, how He has suffered your shame on the cross and taken it away forever.  Take refuge in Him and His words; seek His righteousness.

    Jesus says, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  Brothers and sisters in Christ, here are the things that make for your peace with God, the body and blood of Christ, offered up for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your peace, for your rest.  Call upon God, and He will hear your voice.  Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will sustain you.  For He has redeemed your soul in peace from the battle that was against you.

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

Beware of False Preachers

Matthew 7:13-23
Trinity 8

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

    Everybody expects the pastor to tell people that it’s important for them to come to church.  But do you know why it is that you need to be here every week to hear the preaching of the Gospel?  It’s not to make me happy (although it does); it’s not even to make God happy with you (He already is with those who are in Christ).  In large part it’s because the world is preaching to you a counter-Gospel every single day of the week, and you need to be strengthened and built up and defended against that.  Even if you don’t go to church, you’re still going to hear preaching–just not the preaching of the Gospel.  Worldly philosophies and theologies are being directed at your ears wherever you are–work, home, school, recreation.  And if all you’re hearing are the pop-culture sermons of the world, pretty soon you’re going to start to be led astray from the truth of Christ.  

    Don’t be naive about this.  Every time you watch a TV show or movie, you’re being preached to–there will be some morality, some worldview that is being pushed on you with disarming humor or compelling visual imagery.  Just as a small example, think how many movies have employed the idea of a person’s soul or consciousness moving from one body to another.  Of course it’s just fiction and entertainment, but over time there is a false theology and a false way of understanding soul and body that is being taught.  Or on another subject, a pastor friend recently remarked that on a popular TV sitcom, the unmarried characters are the ones having sex, and the married ones aren’t.  There’s a subtle and subversive message being delivered there.  So also, when you listen to music or go to some concert or entertainment venue, you’re being preached to and marketed to and spun with all sorts of emotional hooks–not only in political ways, but in lifestyle ways.  And lifestyle is always about theology, what you believe about yourself, God, others, how you should spend your money, and so on.  And even in the workplace or at school or college, especially in today’s politically correct, social justice warrior environment, theology and ethics are bound up in the policies about your speech and conduct, in the school or the company's “vision” that you’re asked to buy into, or in all the buzzwords that keep getting repeated.  You see, there’s a way of understanding life and spirituality and what’s good and bad that’s inherent in all of these things–and that understanding is often laced with ideas that don’t align with God’s Word.  So don’t be deceived.  In this present darkness, hearing the preaching of God’s Word once a week is pretty much a bare minimum.null

    Jesus makes it very clear that we should take the danger of the world’s false preaching very seriously when He says, “Beware of false prophets.”  That word “Beware” is the equivalent of a road sign with flashing red lights.  “Danger!” “Watch out!”  He wouldn’t warn us so seriously like that unless the threat were real and important to be alert for.  

    That road sign Jesus gives us is a reminder that there are two paths that you can take in this world, and only one leads to life.  The road that leads to destruction is wide and broad and feels right.  It is the path that most everyone is taking.  It is the way of pleasing people rather than pleasing God, loving yourself more than Him.  You’ve heard the preachers of this path.  They tell you to do what brings you self-fulfillment.  They tell you that you have an inner light within that you must connect with, that you must follow your heart and your dreams and your passions.  Just believe in yourself.  As the Oprah once said, you should speak your truth and live your truth–as if there were more than one truth, no Truth that is higher than us regardless of what we think or feel, just the truth that supposedly flows from our hearts.  But then there’s God’s Word which says, “The heart is deceitful and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus Himself said, “From within, out of the heart...come wickedness and deceit” (Mark 7:21-22).  That’s no place to be looking for truth.  Still, like drivers ignoring a “Bridge Out” sign, people take this broad road and are led over a cliff to their destruction.

    The path of life, on the other hand, is narrow and difficult and is often contrary to what feels right.  It involves going against the flow, following the Word of God and not the crowd or your heart.  The way of life is narrow because it is found exclusively in Christ who said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  This path is difficult because it is the way of the cross.  It’s not about self-fulfillment, but self-denial. as Jesus said, "Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Me."  It’s not about loving yourself above all but loving others and esteeming others better than yourself.  It is the way of repentance and sacrifice.  It is the Way of Jesus who bore the cross for you so that you may follow Him through suffering to share with Him in the resurrection of the body.  Jesus walked that narrow way of sorrows for you to Calvary.  He died to take away your sins; He cleared the path and opened the narrow gate of faith in Him so that you may have eternal life purely by His grace.

    Beware, then, of being lured off the narrow way of Jesus.  You know you’re being tempted by the spirit of false prophecy when your biggest fear is being accused of being judgmental; when you tell yourself that it’s not your place to speak up, to speak the truth in love, even to a close friend or family member who needs to be called to repentance and faith in Christ.  No, better just to keep the peace and not rock the boat and hope that they’ll magically return to Christ apart from His spoken Word.  But all you’re doing by that is showing that you love God less than you love your relationships with those people.  And in fact it’s not really showing love to those people, anyway, to ignore unrepentant sin which invites God’s judgment on them.

    Beware of false prophets.  They may look like fine, pious, upstanding people you should be paying attention to.  But inwardly, Jesus says, they are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing.  The devil comes as an angel of light, as something good, and so do false preachers.  The thing that makes the lie powerful is that it masquerades as the truth.  Jeremiah said that false prophets, be they men or women, speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord.  They don’t preach the truth God has given them in His Word, but what the people want to hear; they preach their own dreams and their own wisdom.  They are without the true teaching of Christ, in which alone there is salvation.

    That’s ultimately how you can tell false prophets from true ones, not by the wonders they can do or how successful they are, not even by how loving they are, but by what they teach, whether it is the pure Law and Gospel of Scripture or something else.  I’ve had people comment to me about how packed this Lutheran megachurch is or that non-denominational or Assembly of God church is.  The implication usually is that they must be doing something good and blessed by God to have those numbers.  But do you remember the faithful prophet Elijah?  He thought he was the only one left who worshiped the Lord in his day.  The Baal worshipers had all the numbers.  God reminded Elijah that still He reserved 7000 faithful among the hundreds and hundreds of thousands in Israel who worshiped the spirit of the age.  Remember what Jesus says, “By their fruit you will know them.”  The fruit refers not to their deeds (which can deceive) but to their doctrine.  What spiritual food do they offer?  What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon?  I John 4 says, “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.”  It is written in 2 John, “Whoever does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God.”  “By their fruits you will know them.”

    So in the midst of all the religion talk and God-talk that you hear, ask yourself, is the focus on me and my praising of God, or is it on Christ and what He has done for me and given to me?  Is it about how I can have a better life in this world and find self-fulfillment and happiness through my own spirituality, or is it about how I can have a new life in Jesus solely through His suffering and death and resurrection?

    And if you want to know whether a teacher is true or false, just consider: Does he direct you to the shifting sands of your own decisions and commitments (like an altar call where you come down to give your heart to Jesus or some such thing), or does he direct you to the solid rock of Christ’s commitment to you and His sure baptismal promise which He gives you?  Does he direct you to your own efforts and works as a way of gaining eternal life or saving you from purgatory, or does he direct you always to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the cross?  Does he only speak of things in mystical, inward, spiritual terms, or does he emphasize the concrete realities of the faith, that Christ took on your flesh and blood as a true man, that He was raised from the dead in the body, that He comes to you now with His true, real body and blood for your forgiveness in the Sacrament, that you will be raised bodily on the Last Day?

    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.”  You'll note that the false prophets in today's Gospel were focused on their own works.  "Lord did we not prophesy and cast out demons and do many wonders in your name?"  They were talking about what they did!  But the will of the Father is all wrapped up and centered not in what we have done but in Christ and what He has done.  He is the one who does the will of the Father perfectly for you.  He is the One who prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but Yours be done.”  The will of the Father was that Jesus go to the cross to suffer and die as the ransom price to redeem you and save you.  And so the will of the Father for you is that you be saved, that you trust in Christ and cling to Him alone for redemption and follow Him day by day in the callings He has placed you into.   It is written in John 6, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  That’s what it means to do the will of the Father: to cling to Christ as the way of life, to believe in Him and stake your life on Him.  He alone is the way into the kingdom of heaven, He who is fully God and fully man, made flesh, who was crucified, resurrected, and ascended for the salvation of sinners.  The will of God is fulfilled in Jesus for you.

    So beware of preachers who teach something different than the faithful pattern of Scriptural words that you’ve been given in the catechism and the creeds.  Learn to know these things by heart; carry them with you as a defense against the world’s false preaching and the world’s allurements.  Beware of those who cast aside the liturgy for something supposedly better and more contemporary, whose teaching doesn’t square with the words of divine service and the preaching that you hear in this place.  Even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, just flee from them.  And flee to Christ.  Take refuge in Him, give attention to His words.  Living in the gift of your baptism, follow that narrow way of Him who is Way, the Truth, and the Life.  In Him you are safe.

    The good tree in the Gospel that bears good fruit is the cross on which Christ hung.  As it is written, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we having died to sins, might live for righteousness.  By His stripes we are healed.”  So you could say, Jesus is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is the reverse; He subverts the devil's ways. He is a sheep in wolves’ clothing.  He is the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in darkness and sin at Golgotha in order to put them to death in His body, so that you would be delivered from all evil.  The wolf has been conquered.  Sin, death, and the devil have been undone for you.  Believing in Christ, taking refuge in Him, you are saved and safe forever from all the lying anti-Gospels that are out there.  As St. Paul said, you are the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood.  Even when your heart and your feelings say otherwise, you belong to Him still; He will never leave you or forsake you.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from His love.

    Come, then, to the holy tree and receive the holy fruit of His blood and His body, which cleanses you of your sin and gives you everlasting life.  Jesus is your true Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy.  By His fruits you will know Him.

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

Merciful as Your Heavenly Father

Luke 6:36-42

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

    One thing I’ve noticed about our fallen human nature is that we have a strong desire to want to place blame and to point out people’s shortcomings when something isn’t quite how we think it should be.  Isn’t that true?  For some reason, when something has gone wrong–at home, at work, wherever–we feel compelled to make clear that it was so-and-so who messed up.  We want to be sure they don’t just get away with their mistake.  We often care more about fixing blame than fixing the problem.  It’s much easier to find fault than it is to show mercy.

    Not very many people measure up to our standards, do they?  They fall short in this area or that area.  They’ve got this annoying habit or that character flaw.  It’s easy for us to see such things in others.  Now, if everybody were like me, we say, then maybe things would be better.  But think about it.  What if everyone were just like you?   That sounds to me like a good formula for a horror movie, where everybody walking around is an exact replica of your personality.  

    And even more importantly, what if God were like you?  Would that be good news or bad news?  What if God judged you in the same way you judge others?  What if God exposed all the thoughts of your heart toward others and all of the gossip you’ve spoken about them?  What if He were in the business of finding fault and making sure you null experience the full consequences of what you deserve?

    Jesus warns us that if we insist on living without mercy toward others, we are inviting God to be without mercy toward us.  If we’re all about pointing out specks of sawdust in other people’s eyes, the 2 x 4 in our own eye is going to end up bludgeoning us in the head.  “Judge not, and you shall not be judged.  Condemn not and you shall not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven.  Give, and it will be given to you: good measure pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom.  For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

    The way you’ve treated others is how you’re going to be treated.  If that doesn’t scare you a bit, listen to these verses just before today’s Gospel, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. . .  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.”

    Such words, while good and true, must also terrify us and crush us.  For we have no power of ourselves to do what God asks, not truly and fully, not from the heart with the right motivations.  We don’t want to give away our money and do good to those who hate us and pray for those who use us.  We want payback!  We are not sons of the Most High by nature, we are children of the evil one.  Realizing this, all we can do is to cry out to the Lord, “Help me!  Save me from myself!  Have mercy on me!”

    And the good news in today’s Gospel is that our Father in heaven is merciful.  He is abounding in steadfast love.  In mercy He causes His sun to rise on the evil as well as the good.  And He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  He provides daily bread to all people, even those who hate Him and reject Him, even those who through false religion want to use Him for their own purposes.  

    But God’s mercy does not stop there.  His mercy extends even to the point of sending His Son into our very flesh to save us from the curse of death.  Though Jesus was blameless, He allowed all of our blame and our blaming to be put on Him.  Jesus made all of our faults and sins His own, and He set us free from their condemnation by dying for us and shedding His blood in our place on the plank of the cross.  Now, because of that, the Father in heaven finds no fault with you.  For you who believe wear the holiness of Christ.  You are forgiven and cleansed and righteous in Jesus’ name.  

    Remember, that’s how God sees you.  The Scriptures say, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  God’s not watching you just waiting for you to mess up so that He can nail you.  For He already nailed His Son on your behalf.  God’s not in the blame business.  He already took care of all of that at Calvary.  He’s in the mercy business, mercy that is limitless and overflowing.

    Jesus is Himself pure mercy in the flesh.  Just consider how His words are embodied and fulfilled in His own life.  He is the One who gave freely and did good to all, healing and helping, asking for nothing in return.  He is the One who, when He was struck on one cheek during His trial did not retaliate but turned the other cheek.  He loved His enemies, blessed those who cursed Him, and prayed for those who spitefully used Him.  Remember what He said on the cross of those who crucified Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  

    The Father continues even now to answer that prayer for you.  He perpetually pours out His forgiveness and mercy to you through Christ from the cross.  In fact so great and generous is His love that He even gives you the right to call Him your Father.  Jesus says here, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  Only Christ can rightly claim God as Father.  And yet He invites you to step into His place and call God your Father.  When the angel Gabriel came to the Blessed Virgin Mary, he said that her child would be called the Son of the Most High.  Now that you have been baptized into Christ, you are also counted as sons of the Most High.  That is rich mercy, that God the Father gives you the same status as Jesus.  You have become as little Christs before the Father.

    And if that is true, then you are also given to become little Christs to your neighbor.  Jesus has given you to stand in His place before the Father by faith.  And now you are called to invite your neighbor to stand in your place, that is, to love your neighbor as if He were your own self, to “be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”  You live in Christ, trusting in the Father’s mercy, and Christ lives in you, being merciful toward your neighbor.  It’s all about Jesus.  For there is no mercy apart from Him.

    Your old Adam can show no real mercy; he’s always in the “I’ll do a favor for you if you can do a favor for me” business.  And so your sinful nature must die through repentance, that Christ may arise in you to be merciful.  By His preaching and the sacraments Jesus dwells in you to love even your enemies and to pray for your antagonists and adversaries.  He lives in you so that you may walk by faith in the Father, letting go of your desire for vengeance, trusting in God to take care of that. Through Christ you know that your life is safely in the hands of the Lord and Judge of all.  Jesus already suffered and paid for your enemies’ sins.  And He says of those enemies who reject His mercy, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”  You don’t have to worry about payback, because God will take care of that.  He’s better at vengeance than you are anyway.  It’s in the Lord’s hands, hands once nailed to the cross.  Perhaps your enemy will repent and be saved by the same mercy that saved you.  And if not, vengeance is the Lord’s.

    Confident of that, you are now free to feed your adversary and give Him drink and to overcome evil with good.  Living in Christ you get to forgive those who have used you, as Joseph did his brothers.  You get to put the best construction on other people’s words and actions and to cover over and ignore their failings and shortcomings.  You get to do good to all, whether or not the recipients are worthy.  You get to lend your money, whether or not you’ll ever get as much in return.  For you know that you have the greatest good in Christ and treasure in heaven.

    This is the way of life in Christ, the life of mercy.  It’s not a way that ignores or doesn’t care about what’s right and wrong.  That’s not what “judge not” means.  The world abuses and misuses this verse to mean that immorality and false doctrine should be tolerated.  But “Judge not” doesn’t mean “Condone sin.”  We’re not loving our neighbors by approving of things that cut them off from eternal life.  Rather, “judge not” is the way which acknowledges that God’s mercy in Christ is greater than the faults and sins of our neighbor and of ourselves.  Only by His mercy do we live.  It is as Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery–and note both parts of this statement.  He said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” By God’s mercy the plank is taken out of our eye.  By God’s mercy we forgive and remove the speck in our brother’s eye.  

    That mercy comes to you again this day in His supper; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom as you receive Christ’s holy body and the cup that runs over with abounding love, His holy blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.

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

No Excuses for the Great Feast

Luke 14:15-24

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

    When people make excuses, it’s often because they don’t really want to take part in the thing they’re being asked to.  You’re invited to a party, but it’s people you don’t really know or don’t like being with, and so you come up with an excuse for why you can’t come.  Or a guy asks a girl out on a date.  But she comes up with all these reasons why this evening or that evening won’t work.  If she really wanted to spend time with him, she’d rearrange her schedule or offer a time that would work.  But the excuses are a sure sign to him that she’s not interested.  So also with church, people come up with all sorts of excuses and rationalizations.  If a famous celebrity or athlete were going to be here, or a beloved friend or a family member that they hadn’t seen for a long time, they’d rearrange the schedule and be sure to be here early.  But simply Jesus and His words and supper?  Boy, I’m really busy right now.  Maybe next week.

    In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks about some folks who were making excuses.  He begins, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many.”  This man is God the Father.  His supper is the banquet of salvation, the heavenly meal of forgiveness and life.  This meal was purchased by Jesus through His death for sin and His victory over the grave on Easter.  In fact Jesus is Himself the meal, the Bread of Life given in the Scriptures and in the holy supper of His body and blood.  God has sent out His Holy Spirit to invite many through the preaching of the Gospel to come to the feast.  All things have been prepared by God; there is no cost or strings attached.  null

    But it is written, “They all with one accord began to make excuses.”  They all were looking for ways to get out of this Gospel invitation.  They had other things they thought were more important to do.  Honoring the Giver of the feast, being with Him and sharing in the joy of His meal just wasn’t something they were all that interested in.  It’s the old brush off, “God, you’re really sweet and all, but maybe some other time.”

    The first said, “I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it.  I ask you to have me excused.”  This man is caught up in his property and does not believe that in Christ the meek shall inherit the earth.  He seeks to gain the world and in the process forfeits his soul.  He sees the value of land but does not desire the priceless land of the new creation.  He elects to go and see his piece of ground, almost like a burial plot, showing his destiny to return to the ground in death.  Property and possessions often lure us away from the Gospel feast.  But we dare never treasure what we have paid for above that which God has freely given in Christ.

    The second said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them.  I ask you to have me excused.”  This man prefers his work to the work of Christ, who said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  This man is like those who want to produce their own righteousness before God, walking under the yoke of the five books of Moses’ Law, rather than trusting in the righteousness of Christ, walking in the freedom of the Gospel.  But in the end they will find no rest.  Their labor and struggle will be in vain.  The temptation for us is to value our own efforts at good living over and above the grace of Christ.  Whenever we think we can do without the banquet of Jesus serving us His Word and Sacraments, we are by definition trusting in our own service and works.

    The third said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”  This man prized his earthly marriage over the heavenly wedding of Christ and His Churchly Bride.  He loved union with his wife more than communion with his Creator.  When death parts him from his wife, there will be nothing to restore him to life.  So also, we must guard against turning the good blessings of marriage and sexuality against the God who created them, or putting our spouse or family before the Lord.  For He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of Me.”

    Jesus spoke this parable against the unbelieving Jews of His day.  They had Him in their midst.  They heard Him preach and teach.  But most of Israel rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the Savior.  They felt no need for the salvation He came to bring.  They didn’t think of themselves as poor, miserable sinners, just people with a few minor imperfections.  Often it was only the lowly and the outcast of society who believed in Jesus and trusted His words of life.  This is what Jesus is referring to in the parable, “Then the master of the house, being angry [at those who rejected the invitation], said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.’” “If you people are too good to come to My feast, fine.  Then I’ll fill my house with those whom you self-righteous look down upon, those who hunger and thirst for My righteousness.  And they shall be filled with eternally satisfying food.”

    God will have a full house on the Last Day for His feast.  And if those who should come don’t, then many whom you might not expect will–not only the poor and the lame and the blind, but also even many from among the heathen nations will be brought to believe and be saved.  In the parable the servant said, “‘Master  it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.’  Then the master said to the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.’”  For this meal is given not on the credentials of the invitees but on the graciousness of the Host.

    This parable is given by Jesus, then, as a warning to us against being complacent and ho-hum about the Gospel and losing our hunger for the feast.  You’ll often notice this when people start saying that they need something more than what divine service offers–something more entertaining or uplifting.  They’ll say things like, “I’m just not being fed; this just isn’t doing it for me”–as if Christ’s preaching and His Sacraments are of little value.  We always want the attention to be on what fulfills our desires and on what we do.  But to the Jews who thought they had heaven wrapped up by virtue of their genealogy and good deeds, Jesus said, “None of those who were invited shall taste my supper.”  That should put a little of the fear of God in us.  Let us also be on guard against putting our faith in our religious pedigree or our good living.  For when we do that, we’ll lose our hunger for the things of God and turn away from the Spirit’s invitation.

    Notice that in the end the only ones taking part in the feast are beggars and foreigners.  For only they  were given to see their need for what the Master had to give.  This is what you also must become before God: a hungry beggar, a needy foreigner, like a starving man in a third world country with flies landing on your face that you don’t even have the strength to brush away.  You must be brought by God to see that of yourself you are spiritually empty, with nowhere else to turn but to Him.  The divine Law must expose your desperate need so that you will crave the Bread of Life.  Only then will the great supper be not just one of many other more important things to do.  It will be the one thing that you cannot do without, the very source of your life.  For the meal is Christ, and He said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. . . He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in Him.”  And if Christ dwells in you, then the sin and death which trouble you ultimately cannot harm you.  His presence gives you real life that even conquers the grave. 

    So take to heart what our Lord’s invitation is saying to you: Do not be afraid.  Do not be sad.  Do not think yourself unworthy or dwell upon your past sins.  They are gone.  They are forgiven.  If you are weary, heartbroken, lonely, wracked with guilt or uncertainty, hear the words of the Lord when he says to you, “Come to the feast!”  It has been made ready for you to heal and restore you. The greatest and the least, the popular and the outcasts, the cool and the uncool, the wealthy and the poor–everyone is invited!  Leave behind the love of temporary things.  Dwell upon the love of Christ who has loved you beyond all telling.  The highways and hedges of this world are not your true home.  He has brought you here this day to His House and to His Feast.  Come, taste of His Supper.

    Our Savior desires that you call upon Him and rest in Him.  He wants you here.  You are clean and worthy to be with the Bridegroom.  He is faithful to you.  He wants you to feast, to be reunited with Him, to be full and satisfied, to be without fear and at peace.  You are reconciled with God and righteous in Christ. The banquet table is laid before you, His flesh and blood which give you life and the resurrection of the body.  Partake of this holy, life-giving food.  Fear the Lord, which is to say, love and trust in the Lord with all due reverence.  Believe in Christ and be put right with the Father.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come.  For blessed is He who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.  And the kingdom of God is here.

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

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