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The Kingdom Prepared For You

Matthew 25:31-46
Second Last Sunday in the Church Year (Trinity 26)

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

    Why should you do good works?  There are two very simple reasons: God has commanded them, and your neighbor is served by them.  You shouldn’t do good works, though, as if God needed your service.  He’s perfectly fine and complete without anything that you do.  In fact, any good that you have the ability to do came from Him in the first place, right?  What a foolish thing it is, then, to try to shove your good works into His face thinking that you can earn your way into heaven, as if He somehow owes you for what you’ve done.  The Lord doesn’t owe anyone anything.  

    God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.  All you have to do is look around for two seconds to see that this world is full of need that is to be met with works of love–and not just charity, but the ordinary, day to day fulfilling of your callings.  Today’s Gospel reading shows us where our good works are to be directed–not up to God as if to earn a merit badge, but down and out toward your neighbor, even toward “the least of these My brethren.”

    All that is needed for heaven is faith–the empty hands of faith that receive the works of Jesus for you and that cling to Him and His cross alone.  But then, with hands filled with the mercy and goodness of Christ, all that is needed for the neighbor is love which passes along Christ’s mercy and serves the neighbor in need.  And those two things are connected and go together.  Faith in Christ gives birth to deeds of love.null

    Though faith is unseen, and love often goes unnoticed, all will be revealed for what it is on the Last Day.  When Jesus comes in glory with all His angels, He will judge both the living and the dead.  And His judgment will reveal who are the sheep and who are the goats, who are the believers and who are the unbelievers.  What is now hidden will be uncovered.  That’s actually what the word “apocalypse” means, the uncovering.  The private will be made public.  Everyone, on the Last Day, will be revealed for who they are: either a sheep of Jesus’ flock or a goat.  Everyone will be seen for how they stand in God’s sight, the faithful or the faithless.  And it will be a day no one can avoid.  “All nations” will be gathered.  Everyone.  No one left out.    

    Your life as a baptized believer prior to the Last Day is hidden before the world.  Colossians 3 says, “You died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  That passage also describes the end, too:  “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  And Romans 8 says that “the entire creation groans and eagerly waits for the sons of God to be revealed.”  So that’s a good way to think about what’s going to happen on the Last Day–it will be a revelation, the curtains and the covers will be pulled back; everyone and everything will be seen for what it is.

    In some ways we’re already getting a taste of the ugly side of that with all the recent media-fed scandals involving politicians and celebrities and actors.  It seems no one is as good they would like to appear.  And we have to admit that if everything were reported about our lives, if every thought, word, and deed were made known before all, we would not look so good ourselves.  The old Adam in a Harvey Weinstein or a Kevin Spacey or a Roy Moore or an Al Franken is fundamentally the same that inhabits each one of us, and gives birth to our particular sins.  The only difference is that their old Adam was more fully unleashed by power and fame and wealth.  Our only hope of being able to stand unashamed on the Last Day, then, is if our sinful nature has already been dealt with before then.  And it has!  That’s what the cross is all about.  That’s what your baptism is all about.  It is written in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life . . . For we know that our old self [the old Adam] was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”  We have been crucified with Christ by water and the Word; our sin has been answered for and done away with.  And so there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:1).

    That’s the first thing that will be revealed and uncovered on the Last Day.  Jesus will separate the sheep from the goats.  Sheep on His right.  Goats on His left.   To the sheep:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.”   To the goats:  “Depart from me, you who are cursed.”   To the sheep:  “Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”  To the goats:  “Depart … into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    Notice that the separation of the sheep from the goats comes before any talk of their works. The sheep are not at the Lord’s right hand because of the works they have done, but because of who and what they are in Christ by His grace.  All this had been prepared long before their works, from the very foundation of the world, it says.  Salvation is by God’s election and doing, not ours, as Ephesians 1 says, “(The Father) chose us in (Christ) before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love He predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace.”

    On the Last Day, once the sheep and goats are divided up, then their works will be judged and evaluated by the Lord.  And the works of the sheep give evidence of the fact that they are indeed the blessed children of God through faith in Jesus.  The Last Day judgment simply makes that fact plain.  Works are counted as good before the Lord only when they flow from faith in Jesus.  No work is good in God’s sight without faith in Jesus, for it is written, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6).  And it is also written, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).  You see, not only does Jesus’ blood cleanse us, it cleanses our works, too, and makes them holy.  Such good works provide evidence of our faith in Jesus.

    And yet even that will not be fully revealed until the Last Day. This is a very important point.  Even this evidence of our faith, the evidence of good works, is something that finally only Jesus the Judge can see right now as we live before Judgment Day.  So, while we live before the Last Day, we should not look to ourselves and our good works as proof that we are sheep.  It is a dangerous thing to look to yourself for the assurance that you are saved.  After all, unbelievers do humanly good works and acts of charity, too.  It’s faith in Jesus that makes all the difference.  Always, remember, the life of the believer is hidden and creation eagerly awaits the revelation of who God’s people are!

    So, in the meantime, Christians live in this world side by side with unbelievers.  And most of the time you can’t tell a huge difference, especially if you only look at what they do in the world.  There is no “Christian” way to deliver the mail, fix a flat tire, or plow a field.  You would hope Christians would be more ethical and hard-working and loving; but pagans can be ethical and hard-working and loving, too–though the ultimate motivation for that will be different.  The difference is internal, and it is the difference between faith in Jesus or unbelief in Jesus.  On the Last Day, Jesus, who judges the heart, will reveal the faith or the unbelief.   And the only works that will be judged good before Jesus are the ones that flow from faith in Him.

    Faith in Jesus is a divine work in us.  It transforms us and gives us a new birth brought about by the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel.  Faith in Jesus slays the old Adam and gives us the life of Christ, making us new people in heart, spirit, and mind.  Such faith by its very nature is active in good works.  Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done.  Before the question is even asked, faith is already doing them.  Jesus, the Word made flesh who dwells within us through faith, shows love to the neighbor in word and deed.  

    In fact, good works come so naturally to faith that the Christian most often does them without even recognizing them.  Notice that the sheep are surprised to find out that the food and drink they served to the hungry and thirsty was actually a meal served to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  That the sick neighbor they helped was actually Jesus Himself hidden in that neighbor.  “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers you did it to me.”  Plus, they likely forgot all the instances where they did these things in the first place.  It's just what they did.

    Good works are done best when we become forgetful of having done them. Our works become a problem when we want to drag them with us into heaven, when we’ve got the score sheets and the tabulations, as if they are a bargaining chip to use in a salvation poker game.  No, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is all that is needed for heaven.  All our good works are to be left down here, for our neighbor in need.  In our neighbor who is sick or hungry or in prison, we learn to see Jesus, who fasted for us, who was arrested and afflicted and stripped of his clothing for us to fully redeem us.  The eyes of our faith are always and fully on Christ the crucified, whose works alone save us.  Living in that faith, we see Jesus also in our neighbor and show our love for Him by loving them.

    On the Last Day our faith will give way to sight.  We will see Jesus as He is, the crucified and risen Savior of the world.  To Him every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to the everlasting joy of the sheep, to the everlasting shame of the goats.  On the Last Day, it will be revealed who you are.  But, of course, you don’t have to wait until the Last Day to know.  After all, the Son of Man and Judge of all, Jesus comes here every Sunday in the divine service as His Word is proclaimed.  And He speaks His Word to you, saying, “All your sin is forgiven!  I put my Name on you in your Baptism!  You are my sheep.  Have no fear little flock.  I am your Good Shepherd.  I laid down my life for you.  I was raised from the dead.  And I live and reign to give you life and peace and joy forever.

    Jesus and His cross is always the dividing line between the sheep and the goats.  The same Jesus who was crucified between a believing sheep and an unbelieving goat on Good Friday feeds you with His own body and blood at the foot of the cross, setting you apart here from the unbelieving world.  He joins Himself to you so that you will live eternally with Him in His kingdom, the one prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  And even the good works you do were prepared for you by the Lord.  For Ephesians 2 says, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  Do you see?  It’s all God’s grace; it’s all what He has done for you and given to you in His Son Jesus.

    Every divine service is a little judgment day where Jesus judges you to be forgiven.  Every week He is here with all His holy angels as we gather around His altar to receive His gifts of grace.  On the Last Day you surely will hear Him declare:  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Brent Kuhlman for some of the above)

Lord of Death and Life

Trinity 16

Luke 7:11-17

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

    In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a funeral as He enters the city of Nain.  I think it’s safe to say that none of us like funerals.  It’s uncomfortable being at the visitation or the service, not always knowing exactly what to do or what to say to those who have lost a friend or a family member.  We want to be caring, but we don’t want to say something stupid or cliche.  We’d much rather not have to deal with those situations at all; for they remind us of things we’d rather not think of and the death that is at work within us.  That’s why people revert so easily to fairy tale heavens filled the deceased’s favorite hobbies and myths of how the person is still with us and watching over us.  That’s why we’re OK with the undertaker’s embalming or cremating.  It helps to keep the realities of death at a distance.

    Of course, when someone has lived a good, long and full life, there can be a sense of completion and fulfillment at a funeral.  People are brought together, and we enjoy sharing good memories of the one who has died and honoring the life of that person–and that’s good.  And yet we dare not get lulled into believing, even in those circumstances, that death is somehow normal or OK or even a good thing, and that the only truly tragic deaths are the ones that are premature–a child or a middle-aged person.  Every death is premature; every death is tragic.  For God did not create nullus to die, but to live with Him, body and soul forever.  Death has only entered the picture because it is the curse of sin which we have brought upon ourselves.  Whether someone dies at 9 or 99, it’s still not how God created things to be; that length of time is still just a fleeting moment, as the Psalmist says, “Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  

    That reality does hit us hardest, though, when someone dies before we expected.  And that’s what Jesus was dealing with in today’s Gospel reading.  He comes upon this funeral, just at the time when they were carrying the body out to be buried.  The Lord of Life and this procession of death come face to face.  The one in the casket was a young man, his mother’s only son.  Perhaps there was an accident; perhaps some illness overcame him.  But she had to hold his dead body in her arms.  And she had just been through this not long before.  For she was a widow, who had to bury her husband as well.  Now she was all alone, no one to care for her, no one to provide for her future.  The name of this city, Nain, means “beauty” or “pleasantness.”  But here all we see is the ugliness of death’s curse at its worst–bringing us sadness and fear, separating us from those we love, crushing our hopes and dreams.  

    However, it is written, “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . He relieves the fatherless and the widow.”  When the Lord sees this widow, He has compassion on her; He is deeply moved with empathy for her plight.  And He says, “Do not weep.”  Don’t cry.  Jesus wasn’t just telling her to be tough, to suppress her emotions.  For Jesus Himself grieved and wept openly at the death of Lazarus.  Rather, St. Paul reminds us that we are ones who do not grieve as those who have no hope.  We do not need to wallow in grief and self-pity and blame, because we have a sure and certain hope in Christ.  And so Jesus speaks with comforting mercy, “Don’t cry, for I have come to conquer everything that saddens you and makes you feel alone and cut off and hurt and helpless.  I am here to wipe away every tear from your eyes.  Behold, I make all things new.”

    Jesus earlier had said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart.”  You do not face death and loneliness alone but with Jesus, the One who is your Help and your Shield, the One who is merciful to all who call upon Him, the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.  He faces death head on in order to renew your bodies and revive your spirits.

    Jesus comes and touches the open coffin, and those carrying the dead man stand still.  Jesus stops the procession of death dead in its tracks.  With this touch of the coffin, Jesus is putting Himself in the place of the widow.  He is sharing in her heartache and the heartache of all those who have lost loved ones, as it is written, “He is . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”  And by touching the casket, Jesus also is putting Himself in the place of the only son.  For in so doing, according to the Old Testament Law, Jesus is making Himself ceremonially unclean with this young man’s death.  He allows that mortality to come upon Him so that the young man might have His own life in exchange, to make the young man clean and whole.  For remember, the only Son of the Father, Jesus, also became a dead man; He, too, would be held in the arms of His grieving mother Mary.  Jesus did that to save this young man, and all of you as well.

    On the cross Jesus touched your casket; He absorbed your death into His own body to save you from it.  Outside the gate of the city at Nain, and later outside the gate of the city at Jerusalem, Jesus allowed death to pass from you to Him so that you would be restored to life, cleansed and made whole.  The beauty of the city of Nain was made ugly by death, but now our Lord has turned the ugliness of the cross into a thing of beauty for us.  For there we see the fullness of His love; there we see our redemption from death and the sure hope of our bodily resurrection to life.

null    “Young man, I say to you, arise!”  Those are the words of the Creator who brings life out of nothing.  The one who was dead sat up and began to speak.  Jesus presented the young man to His mother.  Just as this son was a gift of God in birth, so now Jesus gives this son again to his mother with the gift of new life.  

    It is the same as in baptism.  Jesus presents children to Christian parents–not just once at birth, but a second time at the font, born again to new life by water and the Word.  Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ.  We are crucified with Him in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life.

    Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman’s son, God stretched Himself out over you three times with His name at the baptismal font.  He breathed His Spirit into you, granting you a sure and certain hope which transcends all grief and sorrow.  Yes, we must live now by faith, still under the shadow of our physical death.  But the life of Christ will be surely ours by sight in the age to come.  For Romans 6 says, “If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”

    On the day of our death, our souls will be received into the blessedness of heaven.  And on the Last Day our bodies themselves will be raised from the dead, rejoined with the soul to live in Christ’s glory.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins.  God has made us alive in Christ by the forgiveness of our sins.

    In response to this miracle, holy fear came upon the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us,” and “God has visited His people.”  And it’s true; God has visited His people in Christ, the greatest of all prophets, the very Son of God raised up from the dead to bring life and immortality to all who take refuge in Him.  Even today He visits you in His holy Supper.  He is literally here for you with His true body and blood–to forgive you, to raise you up, and to strengthen the faith you need to rely on Him through all your earthly struggles.  

    That’s why, as the Epistle reading said, we bow our knees before God when we come to the altar.  It’s not some ridiculous form of protest, taking a knee; it’s a sign of reverence and respect and honor for the Lord Jesus who is truly present here to fill us with His life.  Real unity is to be found not in sports or even in the flag but at the altar.  Here we are brought into communion with God and with one another.  

    Since Jesus does all of this for us, we know now that all is well.  Even funerals have joy at their center for those who are in Christ;  for He is alive and has taken away death’s sting.  So do not weep; our Lord has said, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.  Because I live, you will live also.”  Jesus will surely visit you yet again at His return to do for you what He did for this young man, and even more–much more.  And so we go on confessing in the Creed, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

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


Trinity 15

Matthew 6:24-34

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

    In today’s Gospel we hear these words from Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness...”  Don’t be obsessing and worrying about all the other stuff; seek Him first.  This is similar to the first commandment where the Lord says, “You shall have no other gods.”  Perhaps some of you remember learning it as it is recorded in Exodus 20, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  Or more literally in Hebrew, “You shall have no other gods in My face.  Get them out of here.  I alone am the true God who rescued you from your slavery.  I am Your Lord and Redeemer.  I don’t want to see any other gods or have you bowing down to them.  They are no good for you.  You belong to Me.  I love you.  You are My own precious and beloved people.”

    Too often, though, we hear the “seek first” words of Jesus or the “before Me” part of the first commandment,  and we take it to mean simply that we should put God first.  We can have other things that we love and trust in, other small-g gods, as long as we don’t let them become more important than the true God.  So we wrongly hear the first commandment as saying, “You shall have no other gods before Me; they need to be after Me.  As long as I’m first, we’re OK.”  But that’s not what the commandment means.  

    The falseness and the silliness of that understanding is revealed when we think of our relationship to God in marital terms.  The Lord often referred to Himself as the husband of His people.  Jesus, we know, is the Groom of His beloved Bride, the Church.  So imagine how ridiculous it would be for a husband to say to his wife, “I don’t want any other guys coming before Me.  But as long as I’m first, you can love and be with other guys.”  No spouses who truly love each other would say that.  It’s not just a matter of being first.  It’s a matter of being the only one.  That’s what the first commandment is about, “You shall have no other gods before Me.  I alone am your God; you are My people.”  The Lord is a jealous God, in the best sense of that word.  He wants to protect you from the lies of the false gods who try to entice you.  He wants what is best for you.  He defends you.  He wants you to be His own and to live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.null

    But still we act as if just putting God first is enough.  As long as I go to church each week, then I can devote myself to my other pet idols during the week.  As long as I give my 10% tithe in the offering plate, then I can use my other money to serve and worship the various other gods that I love.  We think that as long as we do things which try to demonstrate that the Lord is #1 for us, then we’ve kept this commandment.  But the Lord doesn’t just want to be first on a long list.  He wants to be the heart and center of the whole list–your family, your work, your recreation, your food and clothing, and yes, your money.  He wants you to receive all those things as good gifts from Him to be used and managed for His glory and the good of others.  The notion that we can serve Him on a part-time basis while serving other things the rest of the time is a lie.  Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.  For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” You cannot serve both the Lord and money.

    It is written, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  Love of money causes us to compromise our principles and beliefs, to do things we shouldn’t do in order to fulfill our desires.  Love of money, for instance, causes us to see children as a burden to our finances rather than a divine blessing.  This is a big problem in our culture, with the average age of the population going up and family sizes going down.  God says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” but we listen to the culture and severely limit the children that God would give so that we can purchase and do all the things we want.  You cannot serve God and mammon.  

    Your security and comfort is either going to be in Him or in your finances and your stuff.  Martin Luther comments in the Large Catechism how we tend to choose the latter: “He who has money and possessions feels secure and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.  On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God.  For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack mammon.  This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave.”  We think that there is security in mammon; we think that it will give us what we want.  But that is a lie.  To serve mammon means eventually to pierce yourselves through with many sorrows.  It is to have a life that may look good but at its heart is full of worry and anxiety.

    Repent, then, of your misplaced trust in undependable mammon and depend on Him who is the sure Rock of our salvation.  Learn from God’s Word to turn away from worldly loves to the source of real Love.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Let your heart trust not in temporary created things but in the eternal Creator.  Turn from your anxieties and doubts to your Father in heaven, who will provide for you.

    Don’t ever forget that the Lord has power to supply whatever we need in ways that we can’t always understand or that we don’t expect.  Just consider the Old Testament reading.  I’m sure the last thing that the widow thought she needed was the prophet Elijah coming to her house in the midst of a famine, another mouth to feed.  And yet she trusted in the Lord’s word that the jar of oil and the bin of flour would not run out.  And they never lacked for bread.  And who would’ve expected that it would be a poor widow, of all people, that the Lord would make use of to provide for Elijah?

    Let us trust, then, that our lives are in the Lord’s hands and that He will care for us according to His good and gracious will, even when it seems like we’re getting to the breaking point.  Let us not engage in worry but in prayer.  Worry produces stress, but prayer produces peace.  For it dwells upon the sure words and promises of God, like those in today’s Gospel.

    Prayer says such things as, “Father in heaven, you know all the things I need, even before I ask for them.  You feed the birds of the air, and not one of them falls to the ground apart from your will.  Help me to trust that I am more valuable in your sight than the birds and that you will feed and sustain me even in the midst of my troubles.  And dear Father, you splendidly clothe the lilies of the field, even though they are little more than the grass.  Give me to believe that you will also clothe me and take care of me.  Keep me from worrying about tomorrow, and give me a thankful heart for the gifts you give day by day, my daily bread, and everything that is necessary to support this body and life.  The world is passing away, but your Word of mercy and life will never pass away.  It will save and sustain me forever.”

    Faith can only pray in this way because of what Jesus has done.  For He is the One who has made you children of the heavenly Father and has given you a place in the family.  Jesus calls you to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness because He Himself is the Righteous One who seeks first your salvation.  God has made you His first priority.  The King seeks after you and pursues you to rescue you.  The Eternal Son of God took on your perishable flesh and blood so that you would be redeemed.  Jesus bore in His own body all the corruption and the decay and the mortality that your sin brings, and He put it all to death on the cross.  In Christ the old undependable, perishable order of things has passed away and all things have become new in the power of His bodily resurrection.  In Him all of the false loves of your old self are forgiven and done away with, and you are given a new love and faith toward Him. This is how the Lord seeks after you and demonstrates His love toward you first, in that while we were still sinners, He died for us.  We love and seek Him first because He first loved and sought us.  And He hasn’t stopped seeking you out.  Christ continues to come to you in the ministry of His Word to bless and keep you.  Surely His goodness and mercy shall pursue you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

    Trusting in Jesus, knowing all that He has done and prepared for us, our worries and fears are calmed.  For if God has provided so bountifully for our eternal needs, certainly He will care for us in all the necessities of this temporal life.  And even when the hard times do come, even if it’s all taken away and God’s care seems to have vanished, we know that we who are His baptized people are not forsaken.  We believe that even when terror and tragedy, sickness and death come, He who created us can and will also recreate us in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  So literally nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  It is as Romans 8 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?”  If you have Jesus, you have it all, for in Him all things hold together.

    That’s how Job could say in His suffering, in the loss of his property and his loved ones, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  “Though he giveth or he taketh, God His children ne’er forsaketh.”

    Living in that confidence, we are freed to use our money and possessions for the good of all, especially those of the household of faith, as the Epistle directs us.  We don’t have to cling tightly to our mammon.  We can give it away, because it’s not our god; it’s a gift of God and an instrument to be put to His use.  Let loose of your mammon.  Give away the security and power you think it gives you.  Turn the idol of mammon on its head; make it bow down to the true God and put it to a godly use, not only here but also out in the world.

    “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” which is to say, “Seek Christ the King, the Righteous One, and all the things you need will be added to you in Him.”  By faith we see that it’s not just a matter of putting the Lord first.  It’s a matter of seeing that Jesus is your first and middle and last.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, your all in all.  He is your entire salvation and life, from beginning to end.  Not only does God promise to feed you your daily bread, but here and now He feeds you with His very body and blood under the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of your sins.  Not only has God promised to clothe you, but He has already robed you in the white garment of Christ’s righteousness in your baptism.  

    And on the Last day you will forever be rid of your mortal clothing, this perishable flesh and blood, and you will put on your new and everlasting clothing in the resurrection of the body, as it is written, “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.”  It is because of this certainty that we take to heart the words of St. Paul, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

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

Your Jesus Has Made You Well

Luke 17:11-19

Trinity 14

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

    Jesus said to the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, “Your faith has made you well.”  Now those words are easily misunderstood, particularly in today’s religious context.  Often when people talk about faith, they turn the focus inward.  The emphasis is on something that’s inside of you, something that you’re doing spiritually.  And so a statement like “Your faith has made you well” could sound like there’s some inward characteristic you have that healed you.  Basically, you healed yourself.  And that’s not at all what Jesus is saying here.

    All too often we think of faith as some special power within us.  It’s all about my believing, my praying, my spirituality.  The power is within me.  That’s the way the world thinks of these things.  “Just look within yourself for the answers,” they say.  “You can do anything if you just have faith and believe.”  But that’s wrong.  Faith is not some power you harness to achieve your own personal goals in life.  That’s not the way the Bible talks.  Such thinking is faulty for several reasons, but especially because it puts the focus on the believer rather than on the One who is believed in.  It locates the ability to save in man’s doing rather than in God’s doing.  It gives the credit and the glory to the one who has faith rather than the One to whom faith clings.  

    You must understand that faith is nothing by itself–nothing.  The power of faith comes from that which it trusts in.  Faith is defined not by its own qualities but by the qualities of what or who it relies on.  And in the realm of Christianity, faith relies on Christ alone.  Faith by itself is like an empty glass.  If you’re thirsty, I might give you the most ornate crystal glass in the world, but if there’s nothing in it, it’s not going to quench your thirst one bit.  It’s not the glass but what’s in it that finally counts.  That’s also how it is with faith.  It’s not the faith itself but what the faith holds to, what or who you believe in that really matters.  Your faith is just the cup.  It’s the content of your faith–what it contains and embraces–that’s most important.  The essential thing is not your trust but where your trust is directed.  null

    That’s why the familiar statements, “You gotta have faith,” or “My faith saw me through” are really meaningless by themselves.  They don’t say what you’re believing in!  Faith in what? in yourself? in your doctor? in your bank account? in the government? in the forces of nature? in your horoscope?  You see, when it comes right down to it, everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists.  Everyone puts their trust in something.  It’s just that not everyone has Christian faith.  Some people believe in science and technology–they think that will give them purpose and provide all the answers they’re looking for.  Others believe in a generic sort of God, not the God of the Scriptures but a false god of their own making that fits in with their own philosophy of life.  Still others trust in worldly idols of power or prestige or possessions or their own wisdom and abilities.  But Christian faith is directed toward Christ Jesus, the eternal and only Son of the Father, who together with the Holy Spirit is the one true God.  That is what the Scriptures mean when they speak of faith:  to fear, love, and trust in this God above all things.  So there is true faith and there is false faith.  There is misplaced belief, and there is properly placed belief.

    Now Jesus’ words to the leper should be much clearer.  When Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” He was not saying that the leper had worked up this thing called “faith” within himself that had healed himself or earned God’s blessing.  Rather, Jesus was saying that by God's Word and Spirit this leper was brought to put his faith in the right place, the only place that could truly bring healing and deliverance from the deteriorating power of sin.  It is as if Jesus said, “Your faith is the correct kind.  You believed that I could help you, and rightly so.  For I alone have the power to save–and not only from temporal bodily ailments, but even from eternal death.  By the Father’s grace you have trusted in Me, the fountain of life.  And so you have been made well.”

    True faith isn’t just a generic belief that God exists.  True faith actively and specifically desires Christ, trusting in Him and in all that He has done.  A person can't have faith without desiring Christ in divine service.  Faith seeks after Christ where He is to be found, in His words, His preaching, His supper.  It calls upon the Lord in time of need and looks to Him and thanks Him for all good things.  

    The ten lepers in the beginning of the Gospel are a good example of this.  They stood afar off because they knew of their uncleanness, even as we all should know of the uncleanness of our hearts.  Yet they still were bold to cry for help, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  So also, we should all be bold to do the same, letting our “Lord, have mercy’s” be full of faith.  The lepers firmly trusted in Christ and were confident He would heal them.

    *That is one of the chief lessons of today’s Gospel, that we should commend ourselves into God’s hands and trust Him for everything, for He will surely supply it.  We should look to Him for all our needs and know that He is our only source of help.  Do not doubt but instead say, “I know that for Christ’s sake God will hear me and give me what I ask.  And even if He doesn’t do it in the way or at the time I prefer, He will do it in His own time and in His own way.”

    A wavering heart that doesn’t believe, that isn’t convinced it will receive what it asks for, will certainly receive nothing.  For our Lord God can give such a heart nothing, even though He would dearly love to do so.  It is as if you have a glass in your hands, but refuse to hold it still and keep waving it back and forth.  I can’t pour anything into it.  If I have a bottle of fine wine and you won’t hold your glass still to let me pour some for you, I’m not going to waste it and pour it all over the floor.  That’s the way it is with an unbelieving, wavering heart.

    On the other hand, if you do not waver, but wait and endure–God loves to give to people like that, as we see in the case of the ten lepers.  They wait patiently and never doubt that Christ will help them.  That is why they get exactly what they believe.  Let us take careful note of that, so that we too learn to trust God’s goodness implicitly, never letting our hearts falter, but patiently expecting what we pray for, be it health when we are sick, food when we are poor, righteousness when we are unrighteous and full of sin, or life instead of death, because God truly loves to pour out His blessings on us.

    The Lord will sometimes make you wait, to see if you continue believing and praying.   That’s how it was with these lepers.  Jesus didn’t heal them right away.  Instead, He simply said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  “Go to the temple in Jerusalem so that you can have yourselves legally declared clean by the religious leaders.”  But Jesus sent them off without any apparent change in their condition.  Then the Gospel says, “And as they went, they were cleansed.”  As they held to Jesus’ words and proceeded down the road, then they were healed.  These men had faith in the promise implicit in Jesus’ directions even without any evidence.  They believed that they had been made well by Jesus, even though they couldn't see it yet.  And in the end, it was revealed to have been true.  Jesus’ words accomplished what they said, first in a hidden way, then in a revealed way.

    And that is exactly how it is also for you.  When you cry out to Jesus in your need, He calls back to you with His words of life.  Of your uncleanness He says, “You are forgiven and cleansed in the waters of your baptism.”  Of your physical health He says, “By my wounds you are healed.  I have taken away all your diseases by my suffering.  Death cannot harm you.”  Of your struggles and difficulties He says, “I have delivered you from them all by my Easter triumph.”  Yet, by all appearances, it may not seem to be that way.  You may still find yourself facing many of the same things.  Nevertheless, just as He did with the lepers, Jesus sends you on our way.  He calls you to walk down the narrow road that leads to everlasting life holding only to His words.  To be a Christian is to trust in Jesus’ promises even without any visible evidence, to believe that you have been cleansed and healed and delivered, even if you can’t always see it yet, to walk by faith not by sight.  For in the end His words toward you will be shown to have been true all along.  Jesus’ words always do what they say–first, in a hidden way, “down the road,” in a revealed way.

    We know that Jesus’ words deliver these things to us because of the destination of His journey.  Not only did the lepers go to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests, the Gospel says that Jesus was going there as well, to be our Great High Priest.  The ten went to get a new lease on life; Jesus, however, went there to give up His life.  His very purpose in coming into this fallen world was to make that ultimate sacrifice to release us from sin and suffering, from death and the devil.  So it was that Jesus breathed in our sin-poisoned air; He was afflicted with our afflictions in order that He might save and rescue us, as it is written, “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”  When Jesus comforted someone, He took their sadness on Himself; when He healed someone, He took their sickness on Himself; when Jesus forgave someone, He took their sin on Himself.  And Jesus has done that for you all.  All of the weight of the fallen world was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, and He carried that load to the cross, where it perished with Him.  Your sin and sorrow and sickness have been overcome, left dead and buried in the tomb from which Christ arose in triumph.  

    Believing in Christ, you have everything now.  Through Him you have healing in the midst of sickness, holiness in the midst of weakness, victory in the midst of things which overwhelm you, even life in the midst of death.  By faith you have it all in Christ, a truth that will be revealed to all creation at the close of the age.  That is why St. Paul could confidently say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

    “Your faith has made you well.”  You can be sure you’re understanding the word “faith” correctly when you can insert the name of Jesus in its place.  Since faith is defined by what it trusts in, you should be able to replace it with “Jesus,” and it should still be saying the same thing.  “Your faith has made you well.”  “Your Jesus has made you well.”  Same thing.  That’s Christian faith.  

    Let us then be like the Samaritan, who returned to give praise and thanks to the Lord, worshiping at His feet.  And let us receive the words that Christ spoke to the cleansed leper as being spoken also to us, “Your faith has made you well.  Your Jesus has saved you.”

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

* This paragraph and the following two paragraphs are adapted from a sermon by Martin Luther in The House Postils, Vol. 2, p. 423.

You're Not the Samaritan

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Trinity 13

Luke 10:25-37

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

    I imagine that when you heard the reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, many of you thought to yourselves, “I know this one well enough.  Don’t have to listen too carefully; the meaning of this one is easy: you’re supposed to help out strangers and be nice to your neighbor, even if you don’t like him.  It’s basically the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We should all try harder and not make excuses and be more like the Samaritan.”  And that is true as far as it goes.  We should be kind to one another and help those in need.  However, that’s actually not the main point of today’s parable.  Jesus is doing much more than just telling us to give it more effort in doing good works.  Even the unbelieving world can get on board with a message that we should be kinder and nicer, right?  No, today’s Gospel is about much more than that.

    We know that because of the reason why Jesus tells this parable.  He tells it to an expert in the law who was trusting in his own keeping of the law to make himself righteous before God.  The lawyer tests Jesus by asking Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And since the man wants to know what he must do, Jesus asks him what the Law says.  And the man correctly summarizes it: Love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus tells him, “If you want to gain eternal life for yourself by your own doing, hey, go for it.  Do that and you’ll live.”  But, of course, the question left hanging out there is, “Can you do that?”null

    Just think about what the Law demands of you.  It requires that you love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength.  It doesn’t say “some” or “most” but “all,” everything that you are, no exceptions, no failures, God at the heart and center of everything. 

    And then, there’s more.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Law recognizes that we know how to love ourselves; that comes quite naturally.  We are to love our neighbor in the same way that we look out for ourselves.  And we must do that freely, gladly, from the heart, even if our neighbor is someone we don't really like.  James 2 reminds us, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

    This summary of the Law is what Jesus presents the lawyer with.  And you can tell that it made the lawyer uncomfortable and a little defensive, because he then tries to justify himself.  Isn’t that what we do when the Law backs us into a corner?  We come up with excuses and exceptions and defenses and justifications like “I did the best I could, a lot better than most people.”  The lawyer asks a self-justifying question, “Well, who is my neighbor?”  Maybe if that category can be narrowed down a bit, perhaps to just family and friends, he can claim that he kept that commandment. 

    It’s only then that we hear the story of the  Good Samaritan.  So it’s important to understand: Jesus tells this parable not to help the lawyer with his own moral improvement, but rather to cut him down to size and nail him as a sinner, to nuke all of his self-justifying thinking and to get him to see that he’s in bad shape and needs to be rescued and saved.  So don’t get the idea that the Samaritan is you in this story.  You are not the Samaritan, Jesus is.

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

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

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

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

    The lawyer had asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”  And the answer to that is “everyone.”  But notice how Jesus changed the question.  He changed it from the Law to the Gospel.  He said, “Who was neighbor to the man?”  Who is neighbor to you?  The answer to that question is just one; it’s Jesus.  He is the One who had mercy, who loved you as Himself.  He is the One who kept the Law for you, in your place, so that in Him you may inherit eternal life, as the Epistle said, “The Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

    Repenting and believing in Jesus, He now lives in you and through you to love and be the neighbor to others.  He frees you to “go and do likewise”–not because you have to in order to be saved (if you're doing it to save yourself, it's not really a good work anyway, is it?)  No, you are freed to go and do likewise in showing mercy simply because your neighbor needs you.  Since Christ became weak for us and bore all our infirmities and sorrows, we learn to see Him in those who are weak and suffering.  And we show love for Him by loving them.

    You’re not the Samaritan; but Jesus is.  You don’t have to justify yourself; Jesus has taken care of that for you.  You are in the family of God.  And so the promised inheritance is yours in Jesus, a free gift, won by His death, delivered by water and the Word, sealed by His body and blood.  As you rest and recover here in the Inn, be strengthened in the certainty that soon, very soon your Good Samaritan will return to you as He has promised.  The risen Jesus will come again to take you to be with Himself in the place that He has prepared for you in His everlasting kingdom.

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

Deathly Wages, Life-Giving Gifts

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

    “The wages of sin is death.”  I think most understand that passage of Scripture to be referring to physical death.  “Because of our sin, we must die; our bodies are destined to wear out and pass away.”  And that is true.  Were it not for mankind’s rebellion against God beginning in the Garden of Eden, there would be no such thing as death. Don’t forget that.  God did not create us to die but to live in His presence forever, in the flesh.  The fact that the world is so screwed up and full of death now is not God’s fault; it’s our own.  In the beginning, animals did not eat one another; Adam and Eve did not eat the animals.  Food was provided freely by God to all living things from the fruit of the trees and the various plants He had created.  All creatures were thoroughly satisfied with God’s provision.  But then through sin, death entered into the world.  Creation fell under the curse of man’s rebellion.  Life become only temporary.  The ground produced weeds and thistles.  Animal turned against animal.  Man turned against man.  Man became in many ways like an animal.  He would have to toil and sweat for His food.  Work would no longer be a pleasurable activity but burdensome labor.  God’s sentence was “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

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

    Death from the eternal perspective has to do with a lot more than just the body giving out and the heart stopping and the brain no longer functioning.  Death ultimately has to do with being separated from God, being cut off from His presence and His goodness.  That’s why hell is rightly called eternal death.  For it is the place where God and His grace are absent, and there is only ultimate nothingness and evil and pain.  Hell is the place where those who want to live independently from God get what they asked for.  null

    So while physical death is indeed the consequence of sin, death ultimately is spiritual.  In the day that they ate, Adam and Eve did die.  They were only hollow shells of what they once were, as all of mankind still is.  Ephesians 2 reminds us all people are by nature dead in sin.

    And I think we know that, at least subconsciously.  When the Epistle reading says that “the wages of sin is death,” we know it doesn’t only mean that death is going to be coming to us someday in the future, but that we’re already experiencing it.  We can feel in our bodies that we’re dying, in various troubles and sickness and aging.  And we experience it in our spirits, too.  Every sin is destructive and brings a little bit of death with it.  For instance, laziness brings boredom with God’s creation and an unhappiness with the blessings God provides, always having to seek out some new pleasure or thrill.  Lust and sexual immorality diminish people and ruin families and sear consciences.  Overindulging in food or drink produces health problems and a sluggish spirit.  Impatience leads to anger. Gossiping leads to conflict and broken friendships.  Greed poisons good relationships.  Pride blinds us to our faults and the needs of our neighbor.  Our sins are killing us.  They’re emptying us of life and hollowing us out–like the empty stomachs of the 4000 in today’s Gospel.  Indeed, the wages of sin is death, even before we die.

    However, that’s only the first half of the verse.  The last half trumps the first half when it declares, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!”  Notice the difference in terminology there.  The first half talks about wages, the second half talks about a gift.  The first part talks about what we have earned, the second part talks about what God has freely given without our earning it.  Our working has led to death, but God’s working leads to life through His Son.

    In today’s Gospel we see a wonderful picture of how God worked to save us from death and bring us back into His life.  For there we see Jesus in the wilderness with the multitudes.  Man’s sin had turned the world from the abundance of Paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse and restore humanity and all of creation.  The Son of God took on your human body and soul and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen, desert world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  

    Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with the deepest possible empathy and feeling.  So fully does Jesus empathize with you and feel for you that He went so far as to make your problems His problem.   He knows what you’re going through, whatever it is.  In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He made Himself a part of the mud and the blood in order to redeem you and revive the fallen creation in which you live.

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

    Jesus would complete His work of undoing the fall and breaking the power of the curse of death at the pinnacle of His ministry, on the cross.  There Jesus turned the curse into a blessing for you.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly curse was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now flows to you and to all who believe in Him.  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Death and hell have been taken away from you through the cross.  All that remains for you now is life, full and free, through Jesus’ resurrection.

    That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the fact that it was on the third day that this miracle was performed in the Gospel.  It is a tradition in the church to fast beginning on Good Friday in observance of our Lord’s holy death and burial.  But then the fast is broken after three days on Easter to partake of the feast of the living and resurrected Christ.  Even so, week by week we fast in spirit with Jesus, bearing His cross in our daily vocations.  But then the fast is broken on the third day, that is, in divine service, as we feast on the living Bread from heaven.  Just as Jesus led these people on a three day journey into the wilderness, so also Jesus leads you on a journey into the wilderness, into your daily callings in this desert world, so that you may learn to hunger for His Word and His righteousness, so that you may see your desperate need for His help and deliverance, and so that you may be filled with His life here on the third day.

    Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  In the same way still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  In the same way still today, Jesus uses seemingly insufficient bread, the bread of the curse, to multiply His grace and bless and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

    When all had eaten there was more left over than when they started.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  So it is that the Lord’s love and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out.  There is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it.  In fact, it’s really just arrogance if you think there’s some sin of yours that can’t be forgiven, as if your sin is stronger than Jesus.  That’s just conceit.  No, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  Not only is the Lord restoring you to the deathless perfection of Eden, He is exalting you to a status and a state even greater and better than Adam and Eve.  The place being prepared for you in heaven surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For all things are fulfilled and brought to their pinnacle in Christ.  

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

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

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

Outward and Inward Sin and Righteousness

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Matthew 5:17-26
Trinity 6

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

    At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we have passages like today’s Gospel, where Jesus teaches the full meaning of the Law.  True righteousness, a true keeping of the Law involves not only our outward behavior but also our inward thoughts and motivations and desires.  It’s not only a matter of the hands but also a matter of the mind and heart.  Anger=Murder, Lust=Adultery, Greed=Stealing, and so forth.  This is a message that we need to hear.  For too often we think of ourselves better than we ought to because most of us haven’t robbed a bank or committed adultery or engaged in violence against our neighbor.  We feel self-satisfied and even a bit self-righteous about that.  We’re good people.  Sure, we’re not perfect and we’ve made a mistake here or there.  But all in all, we’ve done well, definitely above average, we think.  And so we need Jesus’ teaching here to remind us that in fact there isn’t a single commandment that we haven’t broken.  We are all murderous, adulterous, lying, covetous thieves.  And that doesn’t even take into account the most important commandments, the first three that have to do with our relationship with God.  Jesus preaches this Law to us so that we might not become like the scribes and Pharisees, trusting in their own goodness and their own clean living.  We need the Law to drive us away from trusting in ourselves to trust in Christ Jesus alone.  The Law is good, but it cannot give us eternal life.  It’s an abuse of the Law to try to do that.  Only Jesus can save us and give us life.

    But there is another more subtle way we can abuse the Law, too, which perhaps is more common for us Lutherans.  We say to ourselves, “Well, since it’s just as much a sin before God if you do it inwardly or outwardly, then it really doesn’t matter if you go ahead and commit the sin with your body since you’ve already done it in your heart.”  We try to justify our behavior by saying that since everyone breaks the commandments in their sinful hearts, then it’s no worse to be guilty of engaging in the outward behavior.  All sins are the same, we say.  But that is wrong and false.  We abuse Jesus’ teaching here by trying to use it make our own outward sins seem not so bad.  null

    Our Lord Jesus teaches us in Scripture that all sins are not equal or the same.  God’s Word teaches that there are different types and different degrees of sin.  What we have done in many cases is that we have taken the correct theological principle that all sins are equally damning, that all sins make us subject to judgment by God–which is true–and then we conclude that all sins therefore are the same and equal.  But that’s clearly not the case.

    For instance, 1 John 5 speaks of sins which lead to death and sins which do not lead to death, faith-destroying sins and those which do not destroy faith.  Sins of weakness are not as damaging to faith, though they still should be considered to be quite dangerous.  Deliberate sins are the worst, when we plan to sin, when we delight in sin, when we know exactly what we’re doing and don’t care.  Jesus Himself said to Pontius Pilate, “Those who delivered me over to you have the greater sin.”  So there are greater and lesser sins, even as Jesus speaks of greater and lesser commandments in today's Gospel.  Or 1 Corinthians 6 speaks of how sexual sin is different because it’s a sin against one’s own body.  Greater damage is inflicted to oneself through such sin.

    Our problem is that we take the idea that all sins are damnable, and then we think therefore that there is no difference if you do it in your heart or if you do it externally.  However, sinfully coveting your neighbor’s wealth is not as horrific as actually going and robbing someone of their life’s savings.  The consequences to your neighbor are vastly different, and the danger to your faith is different.  All sin is dangerous and damnable, but all sin is certainly not the same.  Our bodily behavior matters.  So we may not be able to stop a flash of anger or lust from arising within us from our sinful nature, but we can stop ourselves from dwelling upon it, from scheming for revenge or engaging in sinful daydreams; and we most certainly can control our bodies from doing someone physical harm or from physically watching pornography or engaging in sexual immorality.  And thanks be to God that He is at work through the curbing influence of His Law, keeping us from ruining our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and others.  Even here we see God’s mercy, that He keeps the effects of our sin in check, so that it doesn’t do all the earthly damage to us that it otherwise would do.

    Don't abuse the Law, then, in either of these ways–whether to try to justify yourselves as righteous, or to try to excuse your sin as not so bad.  Jesus said, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  St. Paul said in the Epistle, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”  God’s forgiveness is not a  license to sin, it’s freedom from sin.  It’s the taking away of sin.  Why would you willingly want to embrace again the very things which once condemned you to hell?  Since the old Adam still hangs around your neck, tempting you to think lightly of sin, the Law is still in force in this fallen world.  Not one jot or tittle will pass away from it till all is fulfilled at Christ’s return.  The commandments still apply to every single one of us, calling us to repent.

    And here’s where the good news fully kicks in.  Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.”  Jesus came not to undo the Law but to bring it to fulfillment and completion in Himself.  He is our only hope and our only help.  For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone.  We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.”  Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law.  For only Jesus has kept the Law without fault or failing.  And all of this He did for you and in your place.  So Jesus isn’t only your example.  Rather, He keeps the Law completely and perfectly on your behalf.  Through faith in Him, His righteousness is counted as yours.

    It is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.”  Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand.  Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, showing compassion, healing, doing good and teaching the truth to all.  Our Lord lived a holy life as our representative and our substitute, so that our unholy lives would be redeemed.

    And Jesus also fulfilled the Law by completing all of the old ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth.  Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus Himself became your eternal Sabbath rest; and so He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I will release from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.”  And by His once-for-all, final sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus cleansed you from your sin and purified you.  All the Old Testament Jewish rules and regulations found their goal in Jesus, who put that all to an end in His crucified body, that the Law might no longer condemn you.  You’ve been put right with God again.  That’s what Jesus was saying on the cross, “It is finished.”  It is accomplished, completed, perfected, fulfilled.  All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

    That new life, that sure hope is entirely yours in holy baptism.  For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  His death counts as your death.  The hellish judgment he experienced counts for you too.  It’s all done and behind you.  Living in Christ, taking refuge under His wings, you are holy to Him; you are protected and kept safe from the power of sin and Satan and from death itself.

    That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be impossible are now, in fact, true in Him:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  By faith in Christ, your righteousness actually does exceed that of the Pharisees, for it has been given to you freely by God’s grace.  You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus as your own.  The Father has declared it to be so.  He didn’t just demand that you straighten out your life, He gave you a whole new life, the life of Jesus that is full and complete and perfect and everlasting.  Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact you have already entered it by faith in Jesus, the King of heaven and earth.  

    So whether you struggle with sins of weakness, or whether you have willfully sinned and rejected and turned away from God, you are not without hope.  Return to faith in Christ; return to the Lord, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism, out of the house of bondage.  Your old selves were crucified with Christ, that you should no longer be slaves to sin.  Therefore, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  That’s what’s real.  For just as you have been united with Him in His death, you will surely also be united with Him in the resurrection of the body when He comes again.  To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all worship, honor, glory, and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

(With thanks to David Petersen for some of the Law exposition above)