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The Gift of Marriage in Christ

John 2:1-11; Ephesians 5:22-33

Epiphany 2

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

In today’s Gospel Jesus is taking part in and adding to the joy of a wedding feast, even providing the finest vintage wine for the occasion.  While this Gospel certainly deals with much more than marriage, I’m going to follow the lead of Martin Luther when he preached on this passage and focus especially on the divine gift of holy matrimony.   

 Marriage was a topic that needed to be addressed in Luther’s day, and it’s certainly no different today.  On the surface, it might seem that our situation is completely different.  When it comes to marriage and sexuality, his time and ours would appear to be almost exact opposites.  After all, in the 1500's some of the most honored and looked-up-to people would have been those who were celibate, monks and priests and nuns who had taken a vow of chastity.  Such people were looked upon as especially spiritual and examples to follow for living a good life.  In our time the most honored people, who are thought of as living the good life, are often those who flaunt their sexuality, who might have several sexual partners over time, and who present their sexual freedom as part of what it means for them to live a truly fulfilled life.  Someone today who is celibate or who waits till marriage is generally looked at as a bit unusual or naive or just boring.

And yet, when it comes right down to it, the problem in our day and in Luther’s day with regard to sexuality is at its root the very same problem.  For in both cases God’s good gift of marriage is looked down on and sometimes even rejected outright.  Whether you’re living a celibate life in order to achieve some supposedly higher state of holiness before God, or whether you’re sleeping with someone you’re not married to, even with the best of intentions and justifications, the sin is still the same: you’re rejecting the goodness and the necessity of God’s institution of marriage.  It is within that sanctified estate that His good gift of sexuality is to be enjoyed.  So it’s the same thing: whether a person is prudish about sex and considers it somehow to be dirty, or whether they’re indulgent about sex and are fine with whatever consenting adults want to do, it’s two sides of the same coin.  God’s gift of marriage is being degraded and cast aside.  

However, in today’s Gospel we see that Jesus approves of marriage and blesses it and the sexual relationship within it as good and holy. Marriage is not just a human arrangement or a mere legal matter or piece of paper.  It’s a divine joining together of a man and a woman, an act of God making two people one flesh. That’s why it’s called holy matrimony.  Remember, God created marriage and joined Adam and Eve together before the fall into sin. He’s the One who created us male and female.  God instituted this for the mutual delight and companionship of husbands and wives, and for the creation of new human life when He grants it.  So whether you’re married or single, God teaches you in His Word to honor marriage highly, especially in how you talk about it with friends and family and co-workers.  Raunchy joking about sex does not honor marriage; belittling your spouse does not honor marriage.  Rather, we should remember the great good that God works through this holy estate.

First of all, in marriage (as in all our vocations) God works to protect us from selfishness.  He places a flesh and blood spouse directly before our eyes, with specific and real needs.  God calls us out of a self-absorbed life that invents its own good works into a devoted life that takes care of the spouse He has given.  A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her.  That’s why if a husband is starting to whine that his wife is hard to deal with or that she’s not meeting his “needs,” he should look in the mirror and slap himself in the face.  His job is not primarily to be a receiver but a giver, sacrificing himself for her.  It’s time to man up and focus on how to draw her to yourself again.  And likewise, if a wife is lamenting that her husband is not turning out to be the man she hoped he would be, she should remember this: God’s call to submit to your husband and to respect him is not dependent on how romantic or manly or communicative he’s been lately.  Honor him as your head as the church honors Christ.  With a gentle spirit, keep looking to him to be the man God has called him and declared him to be.  It is God’s intent that through this mutual self-giving, His people would be built up and that selfishness would be put down.

Secondly, in marriage God works to protect us from lust.  The book of Proverbs consistently refers to sexual enticements, pornographic enticements, as one of the chief ways in which people are led into ruin.  In marriage God seeks to protect us from the destructiveness of lust.  St. Paul (who himself was single) counsels all who suffer from lust to marry, for this is God’s good and gracious provision for rendering proper affection one to the other.  This is also one of the reasons why Paul counsels spouses not to withhold themselves from each other for lengthy periods of time.  One of God’s blessings in marriage is the dampening and controlling of lust.

Thirdly, in marriage God seeks to protect us from loneliness.  Through the working of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, we can easily become isolated and cut off.  In marriage God is at work to protect us from that.  When it is His will, He gives us a companion for comfort and camaraderie in life.  In the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”  Adam received Eve as the God-given companion that brought them both completeness.  Such is God’s intention for marriage also today.

Fourthly, through marriage God works to rescue us from doubt.  Although we would like to believe that we always make good decisions in life, we know that sin clouds our heart and mind.  So how can we be certain that we have chosen the right partner?  Through marriage God guards against such doubt by giving you the certainty that He is the One who married you to your spouse; that person is the one the Lord Himself has given you to love and to be committed to, even if they’re far from perfect.  And what the Lord has done stands far above any feelings you may or may not have or any later wondering whether you should have chosen differently.  A man and woman may in freedom choose to marry each other, but what really and finally counts is that it is the Lord who unites them, working through the authorities that He has established.  In this way God protects marriage from doubt with the certainty that He is the One who has made the union.

Fifthly, in marriage God seeks to protect us from the delusion of self-sufficiency.  We tend to think that we can do just fine on our own apart from God.  Without the calling of serving a spouse in marriage (or serving our neighbor in any of our vocations), sinners would perceive even less need for God.  In marriage God protects us from such misguided self-reliance.  He gives husbands and wives the holy calling of serving each other in Christ.  And when husband and wife fail each other, as is bound to happen, God puts His law to work.  He confronts their self-centeredness and their faltering service.  He afflicts their consciences and disturbs their self-sufficiency.  In short, God drives them to depend on Him.  He drives them back to Himself, to find forgiveness, strength, and hope in Christ.  Confession and Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Body and Blood of Christ become their lifeblood, making them right with God and able to serve each other again.

Finally, through marriage God works to preserve society.  Without this institution, the basic unit of society, the family, would crumble.  We see this happening around us, where conflict and chaos and self-will replace His order of family self-giving.  To prevent such evil, God established and blessed marriage from the beginning and said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”  With that creative word, God continues to bless the union of husband and wife so that children are conceived and born.  This, by the way, is one of the key reasons why gay marriage simply cannot and does not exist in God’s sight.  Every child has a father and a mother, male and female.  Every father and mother is given a divine responsibility toward their children and toward one another within the commitment of marriage. Homosexual relationships can only fake that and cannot produce children.  So-called gay “marriage” is fundamentally sterile and lifeless, not because of health reasons or age, but by the very nature of what it is.  God’s purpose in marriage is for husband and wife to serve not only each other but also their children by protecting, providing for, and nurturing them in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Founded upon God’s gift of the family, human society can be more  peaceably ordered.  And this in turn gives a good context for the saving Word of Christ to be preached and taught both in the church and the home.

All of this is God’s good gift.  And all of this is meant to drive us to the greater reality that marriage points to.  The fact of the matter is, to one degree or another, all marriages are broken marriages; for it is two sinners who are united, whose only hope is in the forgiveness of sins that comes from Jesus.  And whether a Christian is single or married, divorced, widowed, young or old, as members of the Church we all are in a marital relationship that rescues and saves us.  For the Church has been united with her holy Groom, Jesus. She is the betrothed of Christ.  In the Epistle today Paul spent a lot of time talking about husbands and wives and marriage.  And then he concludes his comments by saying, “What I’m really talking about though is Christ and the Church.”  Earthly marriage is a sign of the greater and perfect love that God has for His people and the heavenly union that exists between them.

From all eternity, before marriage was instituted, it was planned that Christ would lay down His life for His woman, sacrifice Himself for the church, to save her from her fall into sin.  Adam was put into a deep sleep, and Eve was created from his side.  So also Jesus was put into the sleep of death on the cross, that this new Eve might be created from the sacramental blood and water that flowed from His side.  St. John calls the church “the elect Lady,” chosen and redeemed by Christ.  For Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her by the washing of water with the Word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having any spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.  For all of you whom sin has contaminated, or whose marriages and families are broken, Jesus shed His blood to cleanse you of every sin; He sanctified you and made you holy for Himself by the water and the Word of Baptism.  You stand before God spotless and perfect in the family of His Church, His holy bride.

Just as husband and wife are given in marriage to become one flesh, so our Lord unites Himself to us and makes Himself one flesh with us–one flesh to the extent that you are now members of His body through baptism.  So if He is the Son of God, then you are called sons of God.  If He holds in His hand the riches and treasures of heaven, those treasures are also yours to hold and take to heart.  If He is the Righteous One, then you are declared righteous before God.  If the death He dies no longer holds Him in the grave, then neither can death hold you in the grave.  The Bride shares in everything that belongs to the Groom.  That’s how marriage works with Jesus.  What is His is now yours, too.

This is the joy of the eternal wedding feast that we are given a glimpse of in the Gospel.  The ritual washing water of the Law is turned into the joyous wedding wine of the Gospel.  The best is saved for last, and that best is Jesus–His forgiveness and mercy and life–which are all for you.  Even now in Divine Service the heavenly groom, our Lord Christ, comes to His bride to comfort her.  He speaks to you His words of love.  He remembers the commitment He made to you at Baptism. He gives Himself to you in Holy Communion that you may share fully in His life.

So set aside your doubts and fears and sorrows.  For it is written, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” Come in faith to His table, that you may share in the joy of the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end.

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

(Some of the points above are based on an article written in Gottesdienst by the Rev. Chaplain Jonathan Shaw.)

Bless the Lord, O My Soul

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

    Psalm 103 prays, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits." To bless the Lord here means to thank Him.  We are gathered now on this holiday precisely for that purpose, that we might remember and give thanks to the Lord for all the benefits He has bestowed on us.

    For we know all too well how prone we are to forget the Lord and His blessings. We forget because we’re all wrapped up in our own little worlds. We forget because we're tempted to think that it's to our own credit that we've gotten where we are in life.  It is as Moses warned Israel, "Beware, lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth." Then Moses counsels us, "When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you." Don't be so wrapped up in the things of creation that you forget your Creator. Honor Him as the Source of all that is good.  

    Romans 1 describes ingratitude as one of the key characteristics of unbelief.  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  And Martin Luther famously and prophetically warned the Germans of his day what would happen for lack of thanksgiving, something which we in this nation should also take to heart: “Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today. . . If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague. . .  Make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Muslim Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast.”null

    “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” First of all, forget not the daily bread God provides you, the material gifts which He has granted you. In the Small Catechism we confess that "daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like."
We might include in that list a number of things we too often take for granted like indoor plumbing and plug-in electricity and computers and antibiotics and fresh produce throughout the winter months.  All of that and more is a gift from the Lord.

    God has given you all that you are and all that you have. You may have worked for some or even most of it, but who gave you the ability to work? Who gave you your ability to think and speak and see and hear? Who continues to sustain your bodies and sustain this nation in such a way that you can enjoy these created blessings? It is not mother nature; it is Father God, who together with the Son and the Holy Spirit is the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity. God does all of this for you–not because you've earned it or deserved it, but simply because He is good and merciful. He is your Father, a God of love who revels in giving you His good gifts.

    Again, we confess in the Catechism, "God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people. But we pray . . . that God would lead us to realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving." God doesn't ask us to pray for daily bread as a condition of our receiving it, and if we don’t ask nicely, He’s not going to provide.  No, God asks us to pray for daily bread so that we'll be reminded where it comes from; to Him is due all the credit and praise.  But God even sustains and cares for those who don't recognize Him as the Giver. That's because God is so good, He even provides for the needs of those who reject Him, that seeing His kindness they might come to repent and believe and be saved.

    But then the question arises: What about when it seems that God's kindness has been taken from us and the provision of daily bread seems to be failing? What about when wars or famines occur or the economy and our financial situation doesn't look so good? What about when the vision and the hearing fail and the health deteriorates? What about when people turn against us? Do we still have anything to give thanks for? Can we still say, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits"? The answer is: Absolutely, yes!

    To be sure, in this fallen world we are bound to experience troubles of various sorts. Temporal blessings are just that, temporary. Sin ruins everything in the end, from international relations right down to our very bodies. Through these things God seeks to humble us and turn us back to Himself.  The fact that God restrains the effects of evil as much as He does in this world and protects us and allows us to enjoy anything is a sign of His mercy.

    But the greatest and truest sign of God's kindness toward us, the greatest benefit for which we give thanks to the Lord, is that He has granted us every eternal blessing in His Son, Jesus Christ. Sin may eventually ruin everything in this world. But our Lord conquered sin in His death on the cross, and through His resurrection He has made all things new. Jesus has redeemed this fallen creation from the curse by bearing the curse in His body. He broke the curse on Good Friday and set us free to live in a never-ending Easter of life and immortality.

    In Jesus we have not only daily bread, but the Living Bread from heaven, His life-giving flesh and blood which He offered up for the world. In Him we have not only earthly clothing, but the robe of His righteousness which we were given to wear at the font. In Him we have not only a temporary house to live in, but an eternal home which He is preparing for us.

    That is how St. Paul, when He was in jail for preaching the Gospel, could say, "I have learned the secret of being content in any situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." Even when Paul was beaten and deprived of everything but the clothes on his back, he still had Christ. And the fact of the matter is that if we have Christ, we have everything. For all things belong to the risen Christ, and through Christ the Father will graciously give us all things.

    Is there no peace in this world or in your relationships? In Christ you have the peace that passes all understanding to guard your hearts and minds, the peace that comes from the full and free forgiveness of your sins, the reconciliation of being restored to the Father. Does financial difficulty threaten you? In Christ you are made rich with the promise that God will never leave you or forsake and with heavenly treasures that will never pass away. Do certain enemies harass you or make you fearful? In Christ you have deliverance from all enemies by His crushing of the devil's head at Calvary. Is your health failing? In Christ you have perfect health in the resurrection of the body. Has death separated you from a loved one? In Christ you have a joyous reunion with those you love who have departed in the faith. If you have Jesus, you have it all–by faith now, by sight when He comes again.

    Our thanksgiving is not based primarily on the circumstances of our life.  Our thanksgiving is based first and foremost on our relationship with God, which has been reconciled through the precious blood of the Lamb of God.  Every single one of us, then, has reason to give thanks to God this day, because when it comes to the most important things, eternal things, we've been blessed beyond our comprehension.

    The true worship of God is to give Him thanks.  In the end that’s just about all that we can truly give to Him, anyway, since He’s the source of all things.  We say it all the time in the liturgy, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.”  Let us, then,  call on His name and give Him thanks for our daily bread, for family and friends, for this great land, but above all, for the holy cross, for His saving Gospel and life-giving Sacraments, and for the real and everlasting life that we have in Him. Let us say with the Psalmist, this day and every day, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits."

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

Real Forgiveness Isn't Easy

Matthew 18:21-35
Trinity 22

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

    Most of us would like to believe that we’re pretty forgiving people. As a rule we’re not angry and vengeful and bitter.  We’re nice; we’re forgiving.  But we need to be careful that we’re not fooling ourselves and misunderstanding this.  When someone says to us that they’re sorry, we think we’re being forgiving when we say, “Oh, don’t worry about it.  No big deal.  It’s alright.”  But brushing something off is not the same thing as forgiveness.  That’s just a way of saying you don’t think it’s all that bad.  It didn’t do any permanent damage. You can forget about it and overlook it.  The true test of forgiveness is when something is genuinely truly bad in our estimation, when some real harm was done.  That’s when we start obsessing about the matter.  That’s when we start talking about certain things being unforgivable.  The truth is that you can only call yourself forgiving if you let go of things that genuinely hurt you and don’t desire payback.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.

    It’s very similar in many ways to the practice of tolerance.  Lots of people like to think of themselves as tolerant nowadays.  “I’m not bigoted against other religions or other cultures or LGBT lifestyles.  I’m a tolerant person!”  But when you ask these people, it turns out that they don’t really think there’s anything particularly wrong with any of that in the first place.  So that’s not actually tolerance at all.  You can only tolerate something which you find to be wrong or distasteful or that you disagree with.  You can’t tolerate something and celebrate it at the same time.  Real tolerance sounds more like this, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who spitefully use you.”  Real tolerance is more like a Christian showing love and kindness to someone in spite of their immorality or unbelief.  null

    In the same way, if you forgive something you don’t really care about, that’s no real virtue.  It’s one thing to forgive and let go of someone’s failure to show up precisely on time for an appointment.  It’s quite another thing to forgive and let go of things that others have done which you find to be detestable–betrayal, sexual molestation, alcoholism, abuse, criminal behavior, abortion.  The only things that you can forgive are things you consider to be real, actual sins.  

    I’m emphasizing this point because in today’s Gospel, it can be easy for us to minimize the debt that the second servant owed the first servant, the 100 denarii.  We say, “Well of course the man should have forgiven his fellow servant!  That was such a small debt compared to what he had just been forgiven.”  But it was still 100 days’ worth of wages.  That’s what a denarius is, a full day’s wage.  That’s more than three months’ pay!  It doesn’t do us any good to ignore the depth of the debt, to deny the gravity of the sins against us that we or others have suffered.  To be sure, it’s not right to hold on to those sins; but neither is it right to pretend like they’re nothing either.  They can create very real bitterness and anger and resentment and fear in fallen creatures like us, a very real desire to grab our neighbor by the throat and say, “Pay me what you owe, now!  An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!”

    Sins have been committed against us which have genuinely hurt us.  But if that is so, think how much more we have committed sins which have genuinely caused pain to our God.  If the wrongs we’ve endured are only 100 denarii, imagine how deep our debt toward God is, our countless rebellions and idolatries, which are described as 10,000 talents!  Just a single talent, just one is the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, more than 18 years worth of wages–and that’s just one talent!  10,000 talents, in other words, is a way of describing a debt that is incalculable, unpayable.  For my part, at least, that means I don’t fully grasp the gravity of my own sin.  And you don’t fully grasp the gravity of your sin.  That’s how sin works.  It blinds us to the utter severity of our own condition.  We are all in the most desperate need of forgiveness from God.

    And that’s where it all must begin.  Without a humble stance as beggars before God, we will never be able to act with lowliness and gentleness toward our neighbor and forgive him.  We must all come before our God and King and acknowledge that even if He gave us 100 years, we couldn’t even begin to make a dent in our debt.  In fact all our attempts would only dig that hole deeper.  We are bankrupt; we are utterly dependent on His mercy to forgive us, or we are lost forever.

    All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God has taken pity on us and canceled our debt.  He didn’t just reduce what we owed and put us on an interest-free payment plan.  No, the debt is completely erased.  It’s gone.  You are debt free.  

    But be sure to understand, the debt still has to be paid; just not by you.  The sin-debt is very real; and so the payment also must be very real.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.  Someone has to absorb the debt.  And that person is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.  God the Son became a human being in order to pay what we humans owed.  But since He is also God, the payment He earned was infinite, even as God Himself is infinite.  Jesus took on Himself your debt, your sins, and they were crucified with Him.  By dying in your place, Jesus settled your account with God forever–not with talents of gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  And by rising again to life, Christ has restored you to life again with the heavenly Father.  All this has been done without any merit or worthiness in you but only because of God’s fatherly goodness and mercy.  You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God.  Forgiveness has overflown to you.  Like the servant, you’ve been given a new life, a new start.

    Since that is true, since God has answered for all sin at Calvary, since it’s all covered by Jesus’ blood, who are we to act otherwise?  Who are we to hold onto what God has let go of and dealt with and done away with, whether it’s our own sin or somebody else’s?

    The first servant in the Gospel failed to understand this.  He didn’t seem to see the connection between how his debt had been forgiven by the mercy of the king, and how therefore he was also to be forgiving toward others.  How could the servant behave so strangely the way he did?  Perhaps it was just that he was completely selfish and self-absorbed.

     Or perhaps it was because he didn’t really trust that his debt was truly forgiven.  Still in the back of his mind he was thinking, “This can’t actually be true.  Sooner or later, the king’s going to be coming for me, and I better build up as much in the way of assets as I possibly can, so that maybe I’ll have a little bargaining power.”  Do you see?  If the servant truly believed that the debt was forgiven, he would have been like a renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, a new man, giving away and passing on with cheer the same compassion he himself had received.  Instead he didn’t believe it; he didn’t walk by faith.  And so he put himself outside the king’s mercy by his actions and ended up suffering the king’s judgment.  

    To forgive is to believe that Jesus really did atone for all sin and pay all debts.  Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I just can’t forgive myself.”  It seems to me that what they’re really saying is, “I can’t believe that God could ever forgive me.  This is going to stay with me forever.  I should be punished or have to make up for it somehow.”  And so they still end up living according to the law of retribution, toward themselves and toward others.  But God has truly forgiven you, of everything–and not only what you’ve done, but also the sin that has been done to you.  He bore your abuse and your humiliation, too, and whatever pollutions you’ve had to endure.  All of that He took away from you; all of that He put to death on the cross.  You are clean again.  You are righteous. To forgive is not to condone the wrongdoing; it’s not to deny the pain caused or the damage done.  Rather, it’s to acknowledge it for all that it is, and to place the matter in God’s hands, the hands that were stretched out in death to take away the power of sin.  Because of that you are now freed to forgive others in the seventy times seven way of the Gospel–not by your own power but by the power and mercy of Christ.

    Just as God has forgiven the whole world through Christ, even those who won’t repent and believe and be saved, so also in Christ we forgive even those who won’t say they’re sorry or be reconciled to us.  Forgiveness is not dependent on the repentance of the person who committed the sin but on the actions and the attitude of the one who was sinned against.  You can forgive someone even if the other person hasn’t changed.  Isn’t that how it is with God?  God has forgiven the whole world’s sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s all covered.  People may still reject that and refuse to believe that and live outside of that forgiveness; but that’s on them.  If they are eternally condemned, it’s because of their own unbelief.  But what we are given to do is to stand with Christ and offer His mercy.  No human sin is greater than God’s divine forgiveness.  And it is by His forgiveness that we forgive others.  When someone does us harm, we remember, “Jesus paid for that sin, too. And if He paid for their sin, it’s no use for me to behave as if He didn’t.”

    So in your marriages and in your families and with your friends, get in the habit first of all of saying “I’m sorry.”  Don’t justify or excuse what you’ve done or immediately go into defense mode.  Be willing to open yourself up to the truth of what you’ve done or failed to do.  And then even more importantly, get in the habit of explicitly saying to the other, “I forgive you.”  “I’m not going to hold this over you.”  There’s vulnerability there also, on both sides of the equation.  But only in this way is there genuine and lasting reconciliation.  

    Real forgiveness will always be hard.  But all the truly hard stuff was done by Jesus, all sins done to death in His body–atoned for, punished, taken away, released and gone.  So when you find it difficult to forgive, or when you find yourself feeling unforgiving again toward a person you’ve once forgiven, the way to deal with that is to return to the cross.  You can’t forgive someone from your heart when your heart is empty.  Fill it with the merciful, debt-releasing words of Christ in Scripture.  Fill it with the sanctifying flood that flows to you from your Baptism into Christ the crucified.  And be filled once again with Jesus’ body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness and cleansing of all sins.

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

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)