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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)

Your Good Intentions, God's Good Will

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Acts 1:1-11/John 15:26 - 16:4

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

    You know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  We like to hold to this notion that if we intended to do the right thing, that somehow makes our sins and our failings less problematic and less horrific.  “Oh, he meant well.”  As if that makes any real difference.  Jesus shows the foolishness of this way of thinking in today’s Gospel when he says, “The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  Does is it really make it any better that someone is intending to do a good and holy work when they kill a disciple of Jesus?  Of course not!  In fact, in some ways that makes it worse.  So don’t comfort yourselves with the thought that you were trying to do something good when you sinned, or that your heart was in the right place, or some other nonsense.  That’s just another way of trying to justify yourself.  That is not the way of repentance.

    Jesus’ main focus here, though, is on how Christians are going to get treated.  He is warning his disciples that they are going to be sinned against with the best of intentions.  People will think that by casting them out of the synagogues and persecuting and even killing them, that they’re doing something God approves of, that they’re actually serving God by doing so.  People may actually intend to be doing something spiritual and good and holy, when all the while they’re opposing God.

 null   That’s what jihad is, something that is supposedly a holy killing, a holy war.  The terrorists kill in service to their false god.  They think this is what God wants, to blow up unbelievers, to behead and take the life of the infidel Christian who refuses to renounce Jesus as the Savior or to honor Muhammed.  We see this all too often, not only in things like the recent Manchester bombing, which was targeted against the general population, but especially in things like the killing of Coptic Christians in Egypt just a couple of days ago.  Dozens of followers of Jesus were specifically targeted because of their faith.  And unlike much of the day to day violence that we hear about, the terrorists think that what they’re doing will make the world a better place.  The Egyptian gunmen left Islamist leaflets among the dead bodies; some evangelism program!  They actually think that they’re serving God; but all their good intentions obviously don’t make their works any less horrific.

    Or closer to home, this is also what the so-called social justice warriors are trying to do to Christians more and more these days.  If you don’t fully support so-called “abortion rights” or gay “marriage” or transgenderism, if you refuse to use your bakery or your photography or your floral arranging skills to participate in a same-sex ceremony, thereby endorsing it as good and acceptable, if you make any sort of open statement that you think marriage is only between a man and a woman, well then you’re no better than a Ku Klux Klan racist.  You deserve to be shunned and driven out of business.  You yourself may not be killed, but your livelihood certainly can be killed.  Many of you who work within the realm of secular culture and government regulations know well the pressure to use politically correct talk or to remain silent about your Christian beliefs in order to avoid problems or a financial hit.  And the thing is, those people who would speak against traditional Christian morality may actually think that they’re doing something moral and good and loving.  They may well believe they’re serving God by enforcing their version of tolerance, which is ironic in itself.  But again, good intentions don’t make anything right.    

    Let us then apply the same standard to ourselves.  For the truth is, most of our sins are done with good intentions, too.  We have this idea that engaging in our own particular sins may actually be for the good, that it can be justified in our case, that it will make things better.  It will satisfy us or relieve us and it won’t really hurt anybody.  We give in to metaphors, like I’m just bursting to get this gossip out, or I’m just bursting with sexual desire and I need some outlet, or I’m just bursting with these angry feelings and I need to vent.  Well, we’re not steam kettles; we don’t need to vent.  We need to repent. (David Petersen)  The reality is that sin begets more sin.  When we give in to these things, it doesn’t alleviate our lust or our anger or our greed or our pride; it feeds it.  It leads us to justify our behavior.  It hardens our hearts.  All our good intentions only lead to hell.

    So let us repent; let us give up on trying to justify ourselves and instead look to Christ who alone can justify us and save us from hell and put us right again.   For this is precisely what the Ascension of our Lord is meant to teach us and give us.  Our justification before God is accomplished and complete in Him who sits at the right hand of the Father.  Though our good intentions fail us and fall short, the Lord’s good intentions toward us and His good will toward us does not fail.  It lifts us up to new and real life.  null

    First of all, the Ascension of Jesus teaches us that God the Father has accepted Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross, no matter what our intentions may have been.  The Ascension means that Jesus accomplished the mission He was given.  It is written in Hebrews, “After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  If Jesus had not been successful in doing what He had been sent to do, He would not have been welcomed home.  However, God the Father has honored His Son’s redeeming work and has received Him to His side.  And that shows that the blood of Jesus has truly cleansed you of all sin.  You really are fully forgiven and redeemed.  Jesus has covered it all for you.  The ungodly think they offer service to God by killing, but Jesus offers service to God the Father and to you by dying.  That is the true service of God, to love and to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another.  This Jesus has done for you to rescue and deliver you.

    And here’s where it gets even better still:  by receiving Jesus to His side, the Father also receives you to His side.  For you are in Christ; you are members of His body.  In welcoming Jesus, He has also welcomed and accepted you.  Think about that: God accepts you.  He accepts you because of Jesus.  God is for you in Christ.  And if God is for us, who can be against us?  You have God’s favor.  Jesus has ascended and is preparing a place for you at the Father’s side.  You are welcome in God’s own household.  

    And since you are baptized members of Christ’s body, in one sense you have already ascended to heaven. That’s how sure your salvation is.  It’s not just a future thing, it’s a present reality.  We sang it in the hymn, “He has raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand.  There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand.”  Ephesians 2 says, “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  So heaven is already yours.  You’re already there, because you are in Jesus.  Colossians 3 says, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Your eternal well-being is secure in the One at the Father’s right hand.

    Jesus’ ascension also means that He is praying and speaking for you with the heavenly Father right now.  It is written in Romans 8, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  Whether it’s individually, or especially as we gather for divine service, Jesus is the One who is leading our prayers.  That’s one of the reasons why pastors wear robes, to cover ourselves up and to show that it’s actually Jesus who is the One leading us and serving as our Priest.  When we offer up our petitions, Jesus receives them and prays them and brings them to the Father on your behalf.  Jesus is the one and only Mediator between God and man; for He alone is both God and man.  God the Father hears and acts upon your prayers according to His wisdom and mercy because of His Son, your Brother, Jesus.  The next time you pray, think of that.  You are never praying alone, even when you’re by yourself.  Jesus is there with you as you pray in faith.  Since you are a child of God now together with Him, He prays the words “Our Father...” together with you.

    Remember: just because Jesus has ascended does not mean that He’s gone from us.  For He said to the apostles, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Jesus is not absent.  He is simply hidden from our sight.  For it is written in Ephesians, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things” in heaven and on earth.  Jesus is not confined to one physical spot somewhere.  For since God is present everywhere, so also is His right hand where Jesus is seated.  So the ascension means that He who from the beginning filled all things as true God now also fills all things as true man.  Our Lord makes Himself specially present in the flesh for us, with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  The Word and the Sacraments are the portal where heaven and earth come together and you can come into contact with the risen and ascended Jesus.  The right hand of God is here in this place.

    And finally, consider this Ascension truth:  in Jesus, Man is now sitting on the throne of God.  One of our guys, one of us, our true blood Brother is there.  We have a Friend in the highest of places.  He’s the One who is in charge.  So no matter what is happening in your life right now, it’s going to be OK in the end.  Jesus has got this.  Scripture promises that He is ruling over all things for the sake of His church, for you.  It is written in Romans 8, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”   You are the called in Holy Baptism, who have been brought to love God because He first loved you.  In love He has told you in advance that things aren’t always going to be easy.  Christians are going to be persecuted just as our Lord was persecuted and suffered.  For even if the unbelieving world claims to worship God, it is not the true God.  Jesus said that they do not know the Father or Him.  So we will not be shocked or surprised when suffering comes.  We live in the sure confidence that as we share in Christ’s cross in this world, we will certainly also share in His bodily resurrection and His ascension glory in the life of the world to come.  The road to heaven has been paved for you by Christ.  In fact the road to heaven is Christ, who has walked the entire way for you.

    So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, set your minds on things above, where He is seated God’s right hand, and not merely the things of this world.  Rejoice in Jesus’ ascension.  For it is a great source of confidence and hope for you.  Jesus is Lord of all things.  He is Lord of your lives.  He is interceding for you and preparing a place for you.  And the Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion in the Day of His return.  The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.

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

The Last Enemy To Be Destroyed Is Death

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

1 Corinthians 15:12-26; Luke 24:1-12

    The spirituality of our culture can be boiled down to the belief that you should always be positive and nice.  And that even goes so far as applying to the subject of death.  Instead of a funeral, it’s much nicer to call it a celebration of someone’s life.  Obituaries try to speak positively, too, talking about how the deceased is said to have “found peace.”  Our culture wants to talk pleasantly about death as just another step in life’s journey, a natural and even beautiful transition to “a better place.”  But those things are partial truths at best and are often based on false beliefs.

    Scripture, on the other hand, is honest about death in a way that is not very positive or nice.  It speaks of death as a curse. It says that death is not a friend but an adversary.  We heard it in the Epistle: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).  It is a nemesis and a foe.  And anyone who tries to sell you on the notion that dying can be a beautiful thing either is a fool who hasn’t actually witnessed what it’s really like very often, or is a false teacher who is not from God.  If you get one of these types coming into your hospital or hospice room, just kick them out.  Don’t waste your time with false prophets.null

    We need to think and talk about death the way Scripture does.  For only then will we fully grasp the joy of Easter.  So let us not talk about death the way the world does—as if the human body God created is merely a container, as if it’s actually good to escape the body into some purely spiritual existence–no, not that!  That’s the way the Corinthians were thinking in the Epistle. They were Greeks, and Greek philosophy said that material, physical stuff was a sort of lower level reality.  What’s really real, what really matters, they said, was the soul.  The body was just a shell, a tin can, something almost that imprisoned the soul.  To be released from that was seen as good.  That’s why they said that there was no resurrection of the dead.  They thought only the soul existed forever.  Why would you want to have a dead body raised, anyway?

    That sort of thinking has infected our own age, too.  People often think of the body as limiting and a hindrance to who they supposedly really are.  They imagine that they can be Christian in their hearts while living bodily like the unbelieving world, rarely being present for the external preaching and Supper of the Lord.  They treat the body as if death is the end of it and only the soul lives on.  Might as well scatter the ashes to the wind; that was just an empty casing, anyway, they think.  The things we do at a time of death reveal much about what we believe regarding the body and eternal life–which is why the women in the Gospel are good examples and role models for us.  They wanted to care for the body of Jesus and treat it with the deepest respect, even though they didn’t yet fully grasp all that was happening that first Easter morning.

    So listen this Easter day, first of all, to what the Scriptures say: God did not create you to die but to live with Him, soul and body, forever.  Death did not exist at all in the beginning; it entered God’s good creation through sin (Rom. 5:12).  You know the Scripture which says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  It is only because of the curse that body and soul get ripped apart. In spite of the world’s nice philosophies and all our attempts to stay positive, death is still not natural or good.  Losing loved ones still tears us up inside.  The grave is still something we naturally fear. It is the thieving work of the devil to destroy the life that God has given us (John 10:10).null

    However, it is important to remember that the One who pronounced the curse of death is God Himself.  He did this not only as the just punishment for sin, but also and especially as the way in which He would take away our sin through the death of His own Son (1 John 3:8).  Since Jesus shared in our flesh and blood, His cross and resurrection crushed the devil who had enslaved us, (Heb. 2:14-15) and it destroyed his thieving work (1 John 3:8).   What we celebrate today, then, is the fact that we are now free.  Do not be afraid any longer.  The curse is broken.  Life is restored.  Jesus lives, for you!

    Here’s how much God cares about your bodily life: Not only did He become true man, your true blood brother, not only did He suffer and die in the body for you to break sin’s curse, but He is now bodily risen from the dead–literally, tangibly, physically.  What did the Gospel say?  When the women went to the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  His resurrection wasn’t merely a spiritual event.  The very same body that was scourged and nailed to the cross and laid in the tomb was raised up and exited the tomb, restored and exalted and glorified.  Jesus’ resurrection is real and historical and true.  

    This is so important and essential for you to believe.  St. Paul says that if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  For then death would still be reigning over you; it would still be your master.  But since Christ has been raised from the dead, that means that the curse is undone; He has now become your Lord.  He has redeemed you to be His own, blessed forever in His kingdom.  Think about it: if the wages of sin is death, and death has been overcome by Christ, that means that your sins have been overcome by Him, too, right?  Jesus’ resurrection means that the wages have been paid for you, and all there is for you now from God is forgiveness and mercy and new resurrection life in Christ.  That’s the good news of Easter!

    In Adam all die–that’s his legacy to you, and it’s your legacy to your children.  But in the new Adam, in Jesus, all shall be made alive–that’s your free inheritance from Him in the family of God.  But there is an order to this being made alive: Christ is the firstfruits, then at His second coming, those who belong to Him.  In other words, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the beginning of the harvest and the sure guarantee of what is to come.  On the Last Day, the full crop of resurrected believers will be brought in.  Philippians 3 says that we eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.  And Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live [bodily!], even though He dies.”

    Because this is true and sure and certain in Jesus, we don’t have to deny the reality of death.  We are free to be honest about it because of Easter.  Death is horrible and powerful, but Jesus is infinitely stronger and has overcome its horror.  null

    And you know that this is true for you personally because you’ve been baptized.  We spoke about it a moment ago: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3)  His atoning death counts for you!  And then this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). Death doesn’t get the last word over you who believe any more, Jesus does.

    The truth is that, as baptized Christians, you’ve actually already kicked the bucket.  Colossians 3 says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  The worst of it is over, then.  The judgment part of death has been taken care of by Jesus. All that’s left now is the final putting to death of your sinful flesh so that you may rise again bodily to eternal life. “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).

    Martin Luther put it wonderfully when he said, “A Christian enjoys the advantage of already being out of the grave with his right leg. Moreover, he has a mighty helper who holds out his hand to him, namely, His Lord Christ; (Jesus) has left the grave entirely a long time ago, and now He takes the Christian by the hand and pulls him more than halfway out of the grave; only the left foot remains in it!  For his sin is already remitted and expunged, God’s wrath and hell are extinguished, and he already lives fully in and with Christ with regard to his . . . soul, as he partakes of eternal life. Therefore death can no longer hold him or harm him. Only the remnant, the old skin, flesh and blood, must still decay before it, too, can be renewed and follow the soul [in the resurrection of the body].”

    Through Jesus alone we can face death without fear and even embrace it as a positive thing. St. Paul wrote: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21,23). We sing with Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).  Our funerals, then, are not just celebrations of life.  They are celebrations of life in Christ even as we mourn.  And we don’t find peace in death.  We find our peace only in Jesus, who is the victor over death.

    So don’t be nice about death!  Rather, make fun of it as the defeated enemy that it is.  Say to the grave, “We bury our dead only to mock you, not because they are dead, but because they live, because they are with Jesus, and their bodies sleep while they wait for the resurrection to come.  We bury our dead because they have been sanctified and sealed for the resurrection through the risen body and blood of Jesus given into their bodies in Holy Communion. They go into you, O grave, only that they might follow Jesus out of you and humiliate you and defeat you.  Ha!” (adapted from David Petersen)  

    Let us this Easter Day join in the Scriptural taunt, “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55,57).  Or as the hymn puts it: 

Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave
  And at death no longer tremble;
He, the Lord, who came to save
  Will at last His own assemble.
They will go their Lord to meet
                       Treading death beneath their feet. (LSB 741:7)

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

Lord of the Flies and the Stronger Man

Luke 11:14-28

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

    The Lord knew that the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, would not let the people of Israel go unless he was compelled to do so.  And so the Lord stretched out His hand and sent the 10 plagues upon Egypt.  Beginning with the third and fourth plagues, the plagues of the gnats and the flies, the Pharaoh’s magicians knew that the Finger of God was at work. How? Because they couldn’t replicate them with their demonic arts. They tried everything they could from their little bag of tricks, but to no avail. The finger of God was working to bring His people out from their slavery and from the burdens the Egyptians had placed on them.  The Lord was redeeming them to be His own and to dwell in the land He had promised to their forefathers.

    And so by the plagues, by these great acts of judgment, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and the king of Egypt, the strong man, was overcome in his own kingdom by One stronger than him.  And those oppressed by Pharaoh, those enslaved by the strong man, were led out of their bondage into freedom by the Stronger Man’s mighty arm through the waters of the Red Sea.

    But as they gathered together with Him in the wilderness, many found that their last state was worse than the first. Even though they’d been miraculously delivered from oppression, even though they pillaged and plundered the strong man and his palace as they left–taking with them much silver and gold from the Egyptians as God directed–they quickly forgot the Word and Promise of the Lord. They grumbled and actually longed to be back in Egypt. They became idolaters, worshiping false gods and worshiping the true God falsely. And so the Lord scattered their bodies throughout the wilderness.null

    All this is the background to the Jesus and Beelzebub controversy in today’s Gospel. The Jews accuse our Lord of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, which in Hebrew means “Lord of the Flies.”  Of course, they meant it as a condemnation. That he is casting out demons by the power of the evil one. That he is some trickster or snake charmer. That he keeps demons as pets so that he can get people’s money by winning their affection and praise.

    But our Lord flips it on them. He asks them by whose authority then do their sons cast out demons?  If Jesus is a trickster, so are they. And then He offers this warning: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” That is, if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then you’re dealing with the Lord, the one who sent gnats and flies for the judgement and destruction of Pharaoh. If it is by the finger of God, then beware, for that Lord of the flies will judge you too, just as he did to those who chased after false Gods and false worship, who rejected His Word and Promise in the wilderness. Jesus said, those who are not with me are against me. Those who do not gather together with me, where I am, scatter. For only those who hear My Word and keep it are blessed.

    So what about you? You, too, have been rescued from your enemies, from the sin that enslaves you, through the waters of Holy Baptism. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the stronger man, has overcome the strong man of sin, death, and the power of the devil by His cross. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so also the Son of man was lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life. By water and word, the fruits of His cross were delivered to you, and the demons, the unclean spirits departed, making way for the Holy Spirit.

    But when Jesus gives the finger of God to the devil, the devil doesn’t just go away nicely. Satan is enraged, his heart is hardened, and he chases after you, as Pharaoh did with all his armies at the Red Sea.  When the devil returns he doesn’t come back alone, but with some of his friends, to ensure that this time, he will not be overcome.  And he always comes back at an opportune time.  He waits for a time when you’re weak.  And so you think you’ve cast out a particular sin–gluttony, drinking, lust and pornography, greed, anger and fear, doubt–then all of a sudden the demons are back in force and you find yourself caught up in that stuff even more awfully and dangerously than before.  

    Perhaps it’s because our great weakness is what we consider to be our strength.  We think that we modern people are much more enlightened than ancient folk.  At least the Pharisees understood that there is such a thing as demons, that evil actually exists, that it’s real, and that God has enemies. We, on the other hand, tend to look for natural, psychological causes, social reasons for our problems. And any mention of demons and devils, makes us think of fairy tales and ghost stories. And right there is Satan’s clever ploy. If you don’t even think he’s real, he can operate all the more freely.  But remember this, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales don’t teach children that dragons and ghosts and demons exist. They already know they exist.  Fairy tales teach them that they can be killed and how they are overcome.”  

    Let us never forget, then, that we’re in the midst of a battle, unseen, but very real.  For if we ignore that reality, we’ll become indifferent to the things of God.  If we pay little attention to the reality of sin and Satan, we’ll also pay little attention to Christ and the Gospel.  And then we’ll get caught up with the world’s imaginary versions of good and evil, where it’s all about politics and and social justice and political correctness.  We’ll become more concerned about so-called “tolerance” than faithfulness to God, about tax rates more than abortion rates. We’ll be more worried about our kids and grandkids growing up to be happy and successful than that they grow up to be good and devout.  We’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what really matters. But here is the truth: there is no neutral territory. You either belong to God, or you belong to Satan. You either gather together where God and His Word is, or you scatter. You are either with Him or against Him.  That’s what Jesus says here; there’s no middle ground. Those who choose the “enlightened,” middle way of moderation are deceived.  They belong to the enemy.

    Our only defense in all of this is Jesus and His Word.  He alone is our refuge and our mighty fortress.  In Him there is absolutely nothing that can harm us, nothing that can separate us from God’s love.  The devil would like you to think that he’s a god alongside the true God.  But he’s not.  He’s just a fallen angel–powerful and dangerous to be sure–but nothing more.  He claimed authority over you through sin.  But now in Christ who has taken away your sin, the devil is beneath you.  You belong to Jesus.  Through Christ Satan is underneath your feet.  For Christ crushed His head with His own bruised heel.  In Christ you are restored to your proper place as human beings, with dominion over all creation, including the demons.  

    Jesus is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan.  He also outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil, turning the devil’s own weapons against him and utterly destroying him.  Jesus deceives the deceiver.  He overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then from the inside nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.  It is written in Hebrews 2, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.”

    Now, therefore, you are no longer slaves; you are free.  Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of goodness and righteousness and truth.  Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit.  And if you have strayed from your baptism, foolishly thinking you could co-exist with the demons, then return to the font in repentance and faith.  For the demons must flee from you there.  They cannot stand to be in the presence of Christ.  He is the One who welcomes you back, speaking His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He is the One who feeds you with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify you and fortify and strengthen your spirits.  Gathered together with Jesus in His church you are safe and secure from the crafts and the assaults of the wicked one.

    “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Just like our Lord’s mother, we too are blessed as we cling to the Word made flesh, as we hold to His powerful, life-giving words.  For just like Mary, we too carry the Lord’s physical presence in our Body as we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion.  And we too hold the Lord in our bosom, you might say, as the Word of God is preached into us and rests in our hearts.  Blessed are you who hold to God’s Word and abide in it.  For no lasting harm can come to you from the evil one.  Nothing can snatch you from the hand of God.  For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won, and to the font, pulpit, and altar where your salvation is given to you personally.  You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are now free to walk in love as children of light.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Jason Braaten, whose sermon notes were adapted for much of the above.)

Look to Jesus, See God, And Live

John 1:1-18; Deuteronomy 18:15-19

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

    You and I suffer from a fundamental religious problem.  We want God to deal with us in a way that would wind up destroying us.  We think that it would be a great thing if we could see God in all His glory and hear Him speak to us.  We say to ourselves, “if only God would come to me in some special and direct way.  If only He would show Himself to Me and speak to me face to face.  Then I could really trust in Him and lead a more faithful Christian life.”  We think that coming into direct, unfiltered, unsheltered contact with God would be a wonderful experience for us.  

    The people of God standing at Mount Sinai, however, would strongly disagree.  They came very nearly into direct contact with God, and they were freaked out.  There was thunder and lightning and fire and smoke and an ear-piercing trumpet sound.  They stayed at a distance from the mountain of God, and they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen.  But let us not hear again the voice of the Lord our God, nor let us see this great fire anymore, lest we die.”  When unholy people come into direct contact with the holy God, it’s like grabbing onto an uninsulated high voltage wire.  The power is good, but unshielded it is deadly.  Nothing unrighteous can stand exposed in God’s presence without being destroyed.  And that includes you.  It is proof of sinful human foolishness that we tend to think otherwise.

    The Old Testament tells us several times that no one can see God and live.  Even Moses, who was permitted safely to hear the voice of God, was only allowed to see the “back” of God on Mount Sinai, Scripture says.  Anything more than that would have undone him.  In a sense, then, God hides Himself from us for our good.  For if we were to come into contact with Him directly in our current fallen condition, we would perish.null

    And yet it’s not good if God were to remain hidden from us forever.  Ultimately, that’s what hell is:  eternal, painful separation from God and all that is blessed and good.  What we want, what we need is to stand in God’s glorious presence and experience the holy joy of communion with Him.  How, then, do we come into contact with God in a saving and beneficial way?

    The answer to our question comes to us at Christmas.  It is as God said to Moses, “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth.”  The people could handle a human presence and a human voice.  And so the solution to our problem of how to come into contact with the holy God is the wonderfully human presence of the Child in the manger.  For that infant boy in swaddling clothes is the fulfillment of the prophecy.  He is the Lord–not God with thunder and lightning and fire and smoke, but God veiled in human flesh–Emmanuel, God with us, God who is one of us.  This is not just the back of God that Moses saw, but the very image and face of God.  In Jesus we are able to approach God without fear.  For He has come down to our level.  He’s not on a mountain; He’s in a manger.  We don't need to climb up to Him.  He has descended to where we are at.  We aren’t overwhelmed and repelled and annihilated by His holiness and power; for He has wrapped His glory in a most inviting way, in the body and soul of a baby.  There He is, the Lord of might, Creator of the universe, helpless in the arms of His mother.  This He did for us, that we might be restored to Him.  Jesus is God whom we can come into direct contact with and not die.  If we seek God anywhere else, we will perish.  But when we come into contact with Jesus, the Son of God in our flesh, just the opposite happens when we believe in Him: we live.  His holiness doesn’t annihilate us, it cleanses us.  Joined to Him by faith, trusting in His love for us, we enter into God’s very presence, where we experience not His anger and wrath, but His everlasting goodness and mercy.

    Jesus is a Prophet like Moses, who speaks the Word of God.  And yet He is of course much greater than Moses, for He is the Word of God, the Word made flesh.  The words in His mouth come from the Father whose divine nature He shares in fully, since He is the very Son of God, of one substance with the Father, God of God, Light of Light.  The reason that God and man can safely come together in Christ is because Jesus is both God and man unified and reconciled in one undivided person.

    And Jesus is much greater than Moses also in this sense: the Law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  The Law of God that Moses revealed is good, but it can only take us so far, even as Moses could only take Israel so far, but not all the way to the Promised Land.  In the end the Law condemns us.  Only Joshua, Yeshua, only Jesus takes us to the Promised Land.  For only He crossed the Jordan ahead of us and for us, passing through death into life in our flesh, that we may share in His life forever.  Jesus reveals the truth of His name, “The Lord saves.”  In Him is manifested the free grace of God, that the Father sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that world might be saved through Him.

    So on this blessed Christmas Day, give thanks to God that He comes to you not in the way of Mt. Sinai but in the way of the manger. The Son of God hides Himself like this in order to reveal Himself in love and make Himself truly known to you.  He veils Himself behind swaddling clothes and the shame of the cross in order that you may see Him by faith and perceive His great love for you.  He veils His voice of power and thunder behind the still small voice of the Scriptures and the preaching of the Gospel, so that you may hear Him without fear.  He conceals and covers Himself in your flesh and blood so that you may come into contact with Him and not be destroyed but purified and redeemed by His mighty power.

    The Word is still made flesh quite literally for you here, mangered in the bread and wine.  As the shepherds knelt before Jesus and worshiped God truly present in the flesh, so you are given to do the very same at this altar.  That is the true way to celebrate Christmas, by partaking of the Christ mass, the true body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Receive Him who comes to you in this humble and lowly way; gladly welcome the Christ-child and hold onto His free gifts of mercy and life.  For the Lord Jesus conceals Himself like this for you now, so that when He reveals Himself on the Last Day, you will not be destroyed; rather, you will be delivered into the most beautiful and awesome glory of His presence and will share in perfect communion with Him who is in the bosom of the Father.  

    Look to Jesus, and see God, and live.  Merry Christmas!

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

Giving Thanks for Our Daily Bread

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

    This day has been set aside by our government for the giving of thanks, especially for our national and temporal blessings.  Interestingly, Thanksgiving first became a national holiday in 1863, right in the middle of the conflict and bloodshed of the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln saw God’s providence in the pivotal victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwells in the heavens.”  There is certainly also something for us to learn about giving thanks even in the midst of conflict and troubles.  And so as we think about all of our temporal blessings, it is fitting that we consider and meditate on the 4th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.  If you would, please turn to the back of your bulletins and answer aloud the questions that I will ask you from the catechism. 

What is the 4th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?

“Give us this day our daily bread.”
What does this mean?
God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.null

    Let’s stop there for a moment.  “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.”  Think about what that means.  It means that God’s goodness is not dependent on your praying.  The Scriptures say that He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and He sends His rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  The Lord is good.  Period.  If you stop praying, He’s not going to stop being good.  So don’t think that your praying is the key element that gets God to do things, as if we can manipulate Him to do what we want.  The truth is that very often it seems to be the unfaithful and the unscrupulous who are doing better at acquiring daily bread than Christians!  In fact most of Psalm 73 is a lament at how prosperous the wicked often are.  And yet the Psalm also confesses trust in the ways of the Lord, who brings down the unrepentant to utter desolation and destruction in the end.  So, we don’t pray “Give us this day our daily bread” in order to make God do something He otherwise wouldn’t.

    But that raises the question, “Why should we pray for daily bread at all, then?”  We do so because in praying this petition, we are drawn to turn our hearts toward our merciful and generous God, to remember that He is the One who gives us our daily bread and all things, and we learn in that way to give Him thanks and honor as our gracious Lord.  God gives us this prayer not for His benefit but for ours, so that we might learn to look to Him for all our needs and trust in Him and cling to Him, lest we forget about Him and turn away from Him and begin trusting in ourselves, to our own destruction.  That’s the real danger that we face as fallen sinners, isn’t it?  To think we’ve gotten where we are in life by our own sweat and hard work and good choices and intelligence.  That’s especially a danger when times are tough.  If we’re doing OK, we can become proud that we put ourselves in a better place than those who are struggling.  But if we’re struggling, we can burden ourselves with all this overwhelming guilt as if it’s all up to us and we’re the ones who control everything.  In both cases, whether it’s pride or despair, thanks toward God and faith in Him is completely lacking.  There is no looking to Him as the source of every blessing for which we should give thanks.  

    Moses warns us in particular against pride in the OT reading, “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and might of my hand have gained me this wealth.’” When we are unthankful, it is because we have forgotten that every good thing that we have in our life is an undeserved gift from our merciful heavenly Father, for which we should thank and praise, serve and obey Him.

     One way you’ll be able to tell that most people don’t really get this point, even on Thanksgiving Day, is in the way they talk about giving thanks.  I always like to mention this, because it’s key:  If you listen carefully, you’ll notice that while people may talk about what they’re thankful for, there’s almost no talk about who they’re thankful to.  There’s no mention of the one who receives our thanks, no mention of God or the Lord.  Or else they’re just expressing thanks to other people, which is fine, but entirely misses the point of the holiday.  Just as Christmas has in many ways become Christ-less in our culture, so also Thanksgiving has become God-less.  Sometimes I think when people say they’re thankful for something, they just mean they’re glad they have it or they feel good about it.  So be sure when you talk about what you’re thankful for that you say, “I’m thankful to God for this or that.”  For ultimately it’s not our giving of thanks, but who we’re giving thanks to that matters.

Let’s continue with the catechism:  
What is meant by daily bread?
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.

    As I’ve already been indicating, when we pray for daily bread, we are asking for more than just food.  We are also praying for everything that is necessary for us to receive it and enjoy it.  It’s hard to enjoy your daily bread when you’ve got rude neighbors or a grouchy spouse or bad health or violence in the streets.  And so when we give thanks for daily bread, our hearts and minds should think beyond the turkey and stuffing on the table, and consider also the farmer’s field and the weather and the trucker who transports and the baker who bakes and the store which sells and the employment by which we earn our money to buy and civil order in society and so forth.  All of this is in God’s hands.  All of this is what we need and ask for in this petition so that our bodily needs might be provided for.

    And yet, we should never forget that this petition comes in 4th place in the Lord’s Prayer, not 1st or 2nd or even 3rd.  That is meant to teach us something, namely, that daily bread is not the most important thing.  First comes God’s name, God’s kingdom, God’s will; and only then comes the daily needs of this life.  You see, the Lord preserves and protects life not simply because He created it, but especially in order to save it for eternity.  The reason He feeds even the wicked and the unbeliever is so that the unbeliever might repent and believe.  That is His will–not just to provide for you for a time, but to have you with Himself forever.  

    And so our receiving of daily bread is ultimately meant to draw us to the even more important receiving of the Bread of Life, our Savior Jesus Christ.  Just as God provides food for both the good and the evil, so also our Lord Jesus died on the cross for all, for the morally upright and for the immoral, for the noble and the shameful, for those who believe in Him and for those who do not.  The Lord is good, and His goodness is shown in His mercy toward people like us, that He took the punishment for all of our ingratitude and pride and sinful self-love, and by His suffering and death He forgave us and freed us from eternal judgment.  This is the greatest blessing for which we give thanks today, that the Living Bread from Heaven has been given to us, Bread which we may eat of and never die.  As Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.  And the bread which I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  It’s no coincidence that we pray  “Give us this day our daily bread” in the liturgy right before we receive Holy Communion.  For that petition (and indeed every petition of the Lord’s Prayer)  is answered most perfectly in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for our forgiveness.  

    And so our Lord exhorts His disciples and us in today’s Gospel: Don’t rejoice simply in the fact that the spirits are subject to you, that you have certain spiritual or material gifts.  Don’t simply give thanks to God for your house or car or job or family.  Rather, rejoice especially in this, that He has written your names in heaven by the blood of Christ.  You who are in Christ are in the Book of Life.  You are saved and redeemed and reconciled to God.  You are His baptized chosen ones.  And if you have that, you have it all–even if you’re unemployed or struggling to pay the bills, even if your health is failing, even if there’s conflict in your life or in our nation.  In Jesus you have the unimaginable riches of heaven.  In Him you have the perfect health of His resurrection life and His victory over the grave.  You are children of God’s kingdom and citizens of heaven.  So it is written, “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?”  That’s how St. Paul could say in today’s Epistle, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  

    God grant that Paul’s faithful attitude may also be our own, that our prayers and petitions may be filled with thanksgiving to God for all of His fatherly love toward us.  “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.”  Amen.

Finding a God of Mercy

Romans 3:19-28; John 8:31-36

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

    The world of Martin Luther’s day and of our day are obviously quite different.  His was a time dominated by princes and popes and the widespread fear of purgatory when you die.  That’s why the indulgences being sold by the church were initially such a success.  People were sincerely afraid of the judgment of God.  Their worldview was very much focused on finding a way to be saved from the punishment their sins deserved.  The promise that indulgences could free people from that was an appealing solution for many.

    On the other hand, ours is a time dominated by notions of freedom and equality and the assumption that almost everyone will have a nice afterlife.  Fear of God’s judgment isn’t what drives things anymore but self-fulfillment.  The god most people conceive of today isn’t the God of the Bible, but just a sort of nice, generic, supernatural force.  And while people certainly still may not like the thought of dying, the belief at least on the surface is that unless you’re a super evil person, you’ll end up in heaven.  Isn’t it just standard conversation at a funeral to say that the deceased is in a better place?

    And so we can be tempted to think that the things that Luther and the Reformation were about–things like sin and hell and the cross and reconciliation with God–while they may have been important at one time, really are no longer things we should focus on so much.  The world has changed.  Many think that we as a church need to move on to other things and address more contemporary and relevant questions.  

    But in truth what ails the church today is that the problem Luther faced has stopped being our problem.null  Technology may have advanced, times may have changed, but fallen human nature hasn’t.  We need to learn to start asking the right questions again:  How can we be rescued from the slavery of our sins and the bondage of death and the very real judgment of God?  For Luther, the question was very personal: “How can a sinner like me be redeemed?  How can I find a God of mercy?” 

    Don’t be drawn away by the self-absorbed God questions of our age: How can I find a God who can make my life better?  How can God give me a life of purpose?  How can I be happy and fulfilled?  Do you notice in those questions, God is just a means to an end, just a way of getting where I want to be.  But God is never merely a means to an end.  God is the end; He’s the goal we seek, the God of mercy.  Our desire is to be with this God.  That’s what heaven is.  He is Himself the fullness of the life that we’re looking for.  Part of the problem, then, is that we’ve stopped asking the right questions.  As one theologian put it, God’s Word isn’t about meeting our needs, it’s about giving us needs worth having.

    Here’s the diagnosis of your need from God’s Word; from the Epistle:  “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.”  Since God’s Law declares all to be guilty and condemned before Him, your greatest need is to escape that and be delivered from that.  And the Law itself can’t help you.  All the Law can do is point the finger at you and tell you to shut your trap.  You’ve got nothing you can say in your own defense–no excuses, no justifications, no “but I did the best I could.”  Just zip it, the Law says.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  There’s nothing you can say to help.  

    In Luther’s day, the typical way to try to escape God’s wrath was through human effort, things like his duties as a monk, his life of self-denial, his attempts to list and repent of every sin in confession and do proper penance–but none of that satisfied him or gave him peace.  For Luther had been given a gift by God: the gift of a tender and strong conscience.  Today, we might call that a curse.  The key to success in this world, and even sometimes in church hierarchy, is compromise.  But with each compromise, the conscience is deadened a little, and God’s Word is set aside a little more.  With each compromise you and I make, we have to tell ourselves, “The warnings of God’s Word don’t really apply to me.”  Deluding ourselves that it is for a greater good, it is easy to set aside what we have learned from Scripture until it no longer bothers us at all.  But Luther’s conscience wouldn’t let him stop being bothered.  And that was actually good.  For as Hebrews 12 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”  These things are not trifling matters.  The fact that we do not tremble more often at God’s Word is a sign of how we have compromised our own consciences, how much we have taken God’s Word of Law and Gospel for granted.

    What made the Reformation finally occur was when the pure light of the life-giving Gospel shone through clearly and began to lift the burden of the Law from Luther.  That didn’t happen through some mystical experience or an emotional conversion or a commitment to obedience, but through a rediscovery of the Scriptural teaching about God’s righteousness.  And here’s what that teaching is:  what God demands in the Law under threat of punishment, He gives by pure grace in the Gospel, as a gift.  In the Law, God condemns our unrighteousness, but in the Gospel, God freely gives us His own righteousness.  It is written in Romans 1: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes. . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’” In other words, the Gospel makes known the righteousness of God, not as demands on you but as a gift to you.  God isn’t saying, “See how righteous I am; now you better measure up,” but rather, “Here, take my righteousness, wear it as your own; it’s yours.”  In His Word God reveals and gives you His righteousness, so that through faith in the Gospel, you are 100% holy and guiltless in His sight.  These words of Scripture revealed the answer to Luther’s terrifying question: “How can I find a God of mercy?”  It’s all there and given to you in Jesus, God’s mercy in the flesh. 

    St. Paul writes in the Epistle, Since, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Pay close attention to those words.  You are justified freely by His grace, without any strings attached.  That’s what grace is, an undeserved gift of love.  You don’t have to justify yourself, look for loopholes, prove yourself, build yourself up by what you do; God Himself justifies you, He declares you righteous, He puts you right with Himself solely and completely based on the works of Christ Jesus His Son.

    And here in particular is what Christ has done for you: the Epistle says that the Lord Jesus redeemed you.  He bought you back out of your slavery to sin and Satan and the grave.  He purchased you with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He traded places with you and allowed Himself to be enslaved, captured and condemned as if He were the sinner, guilty of every wrong that’s ever been done and every failure to do what’s right.  He took your place in the chains of death to set you free, so that you would take His place in everlasting life.  Through His sacred death, Jesus broke your bonds and conquered your slave masters so that they have no eternal power over you any more.  In the Son of God you are truly free–released, forgiven, alive.  Jesus Himself said, “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”

    That merciful release and freedom given only in Christ is what Luther needed, what we need, and what every age needs.  It doesn’t change with the times; it doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle ages or this postmodern age, this unchanging truth remains:  God’s wrath against sinners has been completely turned away through the cross.  This He did for you.  God doesn’t hate you, He loves you in Jesus.  He has chosen you as His own and brought you out of darkness, so that you may live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  You are no longer slaves, you are beloved children in the household of God.  That’s the good news of the Gospel of Jesus.

    So if we really want things to be put right again, with ourselves and with the church, and be renewed in our Christian faith, then let us always keep the Reformation question central to our own theology and belief: “How can I find a God of mercy?”  And hearing the answer in God’s Word, that we are justified and declared righteous “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” alone, given by grace alone in preaching and the Sacraments, received through faith alone, then we will be on the right track.  Then we will be freed to do truly good works–works performed not out of fear of punishment or to acquire our own salvation, but works performed in the sure confidence that we’re already saved in Christ, works done for the good of our neighbor as we live out the callings God has given us in the home and work and state and church.  This is the Scriptural, Reformation flow of good works–not us to God, but God to us and then through us in love to the world. 

    One final thought: The Epistle reading said that boasting is excluded.  That is important for us to remember at a Reformation celebration.  It’s not just that we shouldn’t boast in our own good works (since it’s all from God), it’s also that we shouldn’t boast in our Lutheranism for its own sake in some sort of puffed up and self-righteous way.  For then we’re denying our own confession of faith.  We aren’t justified by being Lutheran.  Martin Luther of course can save no one.  We are justified by the holy cross, by faith in Christ alone–and even that faith is a gift of the Gospel.  That’s where the focus must stay, always on Jesus and His Word.  As it is written, “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”  For the Lord Himself says, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

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

(With thanks to Herman Sasse and his work, “Luther and the Teaching of the Reformation,” Part 2, The Lonely Way, and the Revs. William Willimon and Christopher Esget)