Warnings and comfort for times of tribulation

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Sermon for Third to Last Sunday after Trinity

Exodus 32:1-20  +  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18  +  Matthew 24:15-28

Today our thoughts begin to turn toward the end of the Church Year, and at the same time, to the end of this world and to the coming of Christ.  Last week as we celebrated All Saints’ Day, we saw the saints wearing white robes.  These, said the angel, are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation—those who die in faith and whose souls are even now before the throne of God in the presence of Christ, the Lamb, washed in the blood of the Lamb and clothed in sparkling white.

But that means that the great tribulation they were coming out of, is here and now.  It means that these are the last days, and that you and I are living in the midst of the great tribulation.  Jesus speaks of it in the Gospel, and Matthew weaves back and forth between Jesus’ predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world.  The Evangelist Luke separates Jesus’ sayings, especially in Luke 17 and Luke 21, so that you can easily tell when He is predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened about 40 years after Jesus’ resurrection in 70 AD, and when Jesus is predicting the events leading up to the end of the world and the return of the Son of Man.  Why does Matthew tie them so closely together?  It’s no accident and no mistake.  The Holy Spirit wanted those two events to be connected for us, so that we learn some things about the great tribulation of the end times from the great tribulation that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus warned His dear disciples and Christians about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and taught them how to survive those troubling times.  But today we won’t spend much time talking about the destruction of Jerusalem.  Instead, we’ll focus on this great tribulation in which we still live, and we’ll listen as Jesus gives us Warnings and Comfort in Times of Tribulation.

Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place…”  An abomination is something that is detestable—hated and despised by God.  This abomination enters the “holy place” and brings with it “desolation.”  “Desolation” is devastation, to turn a place into a wasteland, either by causing the inhabitants to flee or by wiping them out.

Throughout the Old Testament, the thing most hated and detested by God is idolatry—the worship of idols, false gods.  You heard this morning about that abomination called the golden calf and how God almost wiped out—desolated—the entire Israelite community because of it.  Over and over again, the idols of the Old Testament caused desolations in Israel.

But the greatest idolatry Israel ever committed was its rejection of Jesus as the Savior sent from God to redeem them from their sins.  The Jews at the time of Jesus didn’t bow down to images of silver or gold.  But when the majority of them rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they turned away from the worship of the true God and turned toward the abomination of works-righteousness—trust in themselves and their own goodness.  From that time on, all their priests and all their sacrifices became an abomination in the sight of God, because instead of promoting faith in Christ, their worship now pointed away from Christ. The desolation of Jerusalem by the Roman armies was God’s severe punishment for such idolatry.

Idolatry is all around us in the world today as people worship false gods.  Sometimes images of gold or silver or stone, but more often things like money and comfort and pleasure, the idol of self and self-reliance and self-service.

But see!  Jesus is not warning us in this Gospel against all the idols that may exist in the world.  He speaks of “seeing the abomination of desolation” standing “in the holy place.”  The holy place is no longer Jerusalem. There’s nothing holy about Jerusalem anymore. No, the holy place is the Holy Christian Church, the communion of holy ones—the communion of saints.  And the abomination is still idolatry.

Yes, it’s true, the Lutheran Church has, for the last 500 years, identified the papacy in Rome as the very Antichrist that sets itself up in the Church above the Word of God, that exalts man and puts man in the place of God in the hearts of the people, and that condemns the teaching that sinners are justified by faith alone in Christ.  The abomination is epitomized—summarized in the papacy. But the abomination extends beyond the papacy, and just because the Lutheran Church has separated from Rome does not mean that the Lutheran Church is immune to the abomination.  No Christian church is immune, hence Jesus’ warning in our Gospel.

Where the word of man is made equal to or even given priority over the Word of God in the Church, there is the abomination that causes desolation.  Where faith alone in Christ for salvation is replaced with the works of man in the doctrines of the Church, there is the abomination that causes desolation.  Where men and councils and synods pretend to speak for God apart from His Word, or where they demand our allegiance above our allegiance to the Gospel of Christ, or where they condemn the teaching and the teachers of justification by faith alone in Christ, there is the abomination that causes desolation.  See it for what it is!

See it for what it is, because on the outside, it doesn’t look like an abomination.  Nobody, not even the pope, comes out and says he denies Christ.  And he can twist the Scriptures and quote from the Word of God and make it sound like he must know what he’s talking about.  And he has so many supporters and so many intelligent men to back up his doctrine and so much history and so much glory on his side, and he teaches so many things that are true and right and good.  Who could see an abomination of desolation behind the papacy?

Luther could.  And so could all the faithful who took to heart the simple Word of God and compared it to the teachings of Rome.  The abomination that causes desolation will not be removed from the holy place, from the Christian Church, until Jesus Himself returns and destroys it with the breath of His mouth, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians.  The abomination is an integral part of the great tribulation in which we live. Keep your eyes open and see it for what it is!

And when you see it, Jesus says, flee!  Flee and don’t look back.  And pray that your flight may not be hindered by anything.  Don’t go down to take anything out of your house. Don’t go back to get your clothes.  Or as He says in Luke, don’t look back as Lot’s wife did while Sodom and Gomorrah were being destroyed.  Her hesitation to leave the idolatry behind cost her her life.

But it’s not as simple—and in some ways, not as difficult!—as fleeing to the mountains, as the Jews in Judea were warned by Jesus to do when they saw the abomination in Jerusalem.  The holy place, the Christian Church, extends now into all the world, to every nation, tribe, language and people.  And wherever the people of God gather, there the abomination will threaten to take hold.

So what’s the answer?  Leave the world?  No, God Himself will take each one of us out of this great tribulation when He sees fit and bring us safely into His heavenly kingdom.  What, then?  Leave the Church itself where Christ Himself has given pastors and teachers to preach His Word and administer His Sacraments?  Wouldn’t Satan have his victory then!

No, you don’t leave “the Church.”  But you may need to leave “a” church or even a church body if the abomination is allowed to set up shop in the denomination.  We have some experience with that, don’t we?  Jesus’ admonition to flee and don’t look back still applies.

But as you leave and as you flee, be on your guard there, too, because false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  As you run away and flee from the abomination of desolation there will be church salesmen trying to drag you into their dens. Look, here is Christ!  Look, he’s in here!  Come on in! Come to my church!  Don’t believe them, Jesus says.  It would be like hopping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And so it is that, ever since Luther led the flight away from the Roman papacy, countless denominations have formed, one sect after another, and you know what almost all of them have in common?  They invite you to come and find Jesus where He isn’t, and they turn you away from where Jesus is.

What am I talking about?  I’m talking about the separation of Christ and His Spirit from the preached Word and the Sacraments.  When Jesus returns, every eye will see Him.  It will be like lightning flashing from one end of the heavens to the other.  Until then, Jesus is not found out in the desert or there in the inner room.  He isn’t found in your feelings or in your heart or in your prayers or in a certain kind of music.  Until His return, Jesus has promised to give Himself to us for salvation, for the forgiveness of sins, only in the Word, only in Baptism, only in Holy Communion.  And ironically, or maybe just in fulfillment of prophecy, the vast majority of denominations in the world today that have separated from Rome deny the saving, forgiving power of Holy Baptism, and they deny the real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar for the forgiveness of sins.

Well, doesn’t this all sound frightful?  Abominations, desolations, false christs and false prophets and danger on every side.  What is our comfort in the midst of this great tribulation?  Our comfort is sure and certain.  Our comfort is Christ Himself and the Word of Christ that will not pass away, even though heaven and earth pass away. Our comfort is that Christ has preserved His Word among us.  His Spirit has gathered us here today around the Gospel and has enlightened us with His gifts.  Here He has given us shelter from the storm.  Here He forgives our sins and strengthens our faith and nourishes our bodies and souls with the body and blood of Christ, so that even in the midst of this great tribulation, God has not abandoned His children but has given us all we need until Christ returns, even the warnings and admonitions in today’s Gospel.  The Lord Jesus hasn’t sent us off into the great tribulation to fend for ourselves.  He has given us His Spirit and has promised to go with us.

The final words of our Gospel are also comforting, although somewhat cryptic.  For wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.  Strange as it sounds, that’s Jesus referring to Himself and His people, even as He says to His disciples in other place, I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. Even now we gather around Jesus in the Sacrament.  But when the times of this great tribulation are finally over and past, we will fly to Him like eagles, as you heard in the Epistle today: For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.

All of Jesus’ prophecies have come true up until now.  Why would we think that this one wouldn’t—this prophecy about the abomination of desolation and the great tribulation that His people would experience in the time before His return?  But if the great tribulation is real, then so is Jesus’ promise to sustain us along the way and to return to rescue His people. Pay attention to His warnings.  And take comfort in His promises.  And let us each be a blessing to one another along the way, in these times of great tribulation.  Amen.

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The hidden blessedness of the saints

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Sermon for All Saints’ Day

Revelation 7:9-17  +  1 John 3:1-3  +  Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate the blessedness of all the saints—saints like Peter and Paul, James and John, Mary and Mary Magdalene; saints like Stephen and all the martyrs who were put to death for their confession of Christ; saints like Augustine and Athanasius, Luther and Chemnitz; but also saints like Ingrid and Earl, members here who have fallen asleep; John and Joyce, my parents who fell asleep in the Lord.  Your parents and relatives who died in faith.  Today we celebrate the blessedness of these saints, but also the blessedness of you, the saints of God, together with all believers in the Lord Jesus.

The word “blessed,” which Jesus uses nine times in the twelve verses of our Gospel, means “fortunate,” “happy,” “privileged recipients of divine favor.”  To be blessed is to have God smiling on you with His grace and favor.

But ours is a hidden blessedness, isn’t it?  We speak of the blessedness of the saints above—men and women who were often despised and mistreated on this earth, men and women and children who suffered and died, men and women and children whose bodies have turned back to dust in the grave.  Even now their blessedness is completely hidden from our eyes. We speak of the blessedness of the saints below—and yet, most of the time you would have a hard time in this world proving that God is smiling on His Christians.

Oh, but He is! Listen to Jesus today as He reveals what our eyes cannot see, as He explains who the blessed are and what it is that makes them so privileged.  Hear the Lord Jesus teach His disciples about the hidden blessedness of the saints.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  God has smiled upon the poor—the poor in spirit. This is spiritual poverty Jesus is talking about.  You can be filthy rich financially and still poor in spirit. Or, you can be dirt poor when it comes to money but still snobbish when it comes to God.

What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  It means to recognize yourself as a beggar before God, a beggar who sees in himself nothing but the dirty rags of sin, the bankruptcy of good works, the lack of any spiritual possessions that might satisfy the requirements of God’s law.  To be poor in spirit means to stretch out your beggar’s hand and to look to God for nothing but charity, alms for the poor, not because you’re entitled to it, but because you know God to be merciful in Jesus Christ.

How can Jesus call these people blessed?  Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  God’s kingdom—Paradise!—belongs to the undeserving, to the poor in spirit who hope in God’s mercy alone.  They possess nothing on their own, but God has given them His own kingdom, His own riches in the Person of Jesus.

This blessedness of the poor in spirit—the blessedness of possessing the kingdom of heaven—is hidden to us now.  We don’t look like possessors of God’s kingdom here on earth, and we can’t see the saints above reveling in the glory of God’s kingdom. But we are, and they are. The saints above were poor in spirit here below, crushed by God’s law, raised up by his grace, washed clean in His Baptism, fed by His body and blood. And although they died, they are not dead.  Their souls live in heaven above, in the kingdom that was theirs here on this earth, but that they now have been granted to enjoy as they sit down at the banquet table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This blessedness is hidden from them no longer.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Those who mourn…well, that’s everyone, isn’t it?, believers and unbelievers alike.  But just as the blessed poor are the poor in spirit, so these mourners are spiritual mourners. The blessed mourners are those who mourn over their sins, with a broken and contrite heart.  They are those who sigh and cry under the weight of the blessed cross as the world crumbles to pieces around them.  The blessed mourners are those who mourn over the horrors of sin in this world, who mourn over the sting of death, and who look up to God with tears in their eyes, because it’s hard to be a Christian.

You can’t see this blessedness.  It’s hidden.  But, Oh, how God smiles upon these mourners.  Why are they blessed? Why are they privileged?  For they shall be comforted.  Secure sinners who do not mourn over their sin but sin bravely and flippantly and could care less whom they offend—they will not be comforted.  But these blessed mourners who look up to God in faith with tears in their eyes…their tears will be wiped away.  The comfort of the Gospel of Jesus’ love and sacrifice, the comfort of God’s favor is held out to them even now.  Forgiveness is granted to them fully and freely. Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.  And as for the saints above, the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The blessed meek, the meek about whom Jesus is speaking are gentle and humble of heart, just as Jesus said about Himself, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”  The meek in the kingdom of God don’t insist on their rights, but instead, in love, they consider others better than themselves and live to serve others, even as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.

You can’t push your way to the front of the line in the kingdom of God.  Instead, the last shall be first.  You can’t fight for a place among the saints.  Instead, the meek shall inherit the earth.  The saints below have not fought our way to the top.  Instead, we have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.  This blessedness is hidden from us.  We know it by faith.  But the saints above—they have seen it firsthand in heaven where, as Peter says, our inheritance is kept for us, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. The world tells you you’ll be blessed if you hunger and thirst after love, pleasure, money, power, prestige, reputation, comfort and ease.  But God condemns such hunger and thirst.  Instead, Jesus calls blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Why? For they shall be satisfied.  How?  Not with a righteousness of our own that comes by works, but with a righteousness that comes by faith to all who believe.  The righteousness of Christ is hidden from our eyes, but God reveals that to those who believe in Christ for righteousness, He credits the righteousness of Christ to us and fills our heavenly account with the goodness and righteousness of Someone Else, our Lord Jesus Himself.

Do you hunger and thirst for His righteousness to stand in for you before God?  You shall be satisfied.  Do you struggle against sin and temptation?  Do you hunger and thirst for the day when sin will no longer be your constant companion?  It’s coming, and for the saints above, that day has already come.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. We don’t have time today to consider in detail all the blessedness that Jesus speaks of in this Gospel—the hidden blessedness in being merciful, in being pure in heart, or in being peacemakers.  I would like to consider with you briefly the final words of Jesus.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heavenBlessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  If ever there was a blessedness that is hidden from our eyes, it is this one.  To be persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the sake of goodness, for the sake of the Gospel of Christ and the kingdom of God—that doesn’t sound like divine blessing, and it doesn’t feel like divine privilege, either.  Our flesh rages against the cross and persecution.  The devil takes suffering and persecution and divisions in the Church and holds them before our eyes and says, “See!  You are on the wrong side!  What kind of God would let you be persecuted for being faithful to His Word?”

But Jesus tells us how things really are—that the blood of the saints is precious in His sight, that those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake are privileged and blessed, because His kingdom belongs to them.  When you are persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, ridiculed, shamed, slandered, condemned and even put to death—rejoice!  You get to be like the blessed Prophets.  Rejoice!  You get to join the ranks of the blessed Apostles.  Rejoice!  You get to be like Jesus.

And that’s the long and short of what it means to be blessed: to be like Jesus, the Holy One—poor in spirit, mourning over sin, meek, hungry and thirsty for our righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, and persecuted.  Neither you nor I nor any of the saints who have gone before us are any of those things by nature, nor could we become those things by our own efforts or by our own choice.  On the contrary, there isn’t a saintly bone in your body.  But in His grace, God has given His Son to be all that we were not, so that by faith alone in Him, we might possess all that He is, first by reckoning, then by becoming.  By faith, God reckons us even now to be among the saints.  And now His Spirit, through the Means of Grace, continually renews us in the image of Jesus Christ so that, day by day, we grow into His image and become like Jesus in true righteousness and holiness and blessedness.

It’s a hidden blessedness now.  But it won’t be hidden forever.  The saints below have it by faith.  The saints above have it by sight.  On this festival of All Saints, let us rejoice in this blessed communion we have with one another as fellow believers, with the saints in glory as co-heirs in this blessed inheritance, and above all, the fellowship that we have been given with Christ Jesus, our Lord.

And what better way could there be for us to celebrate this communion than with the blessed Meal of Holy Communion where all the saints in heaven and on earth gather around the body and blood of Jesus to receive, by faith, His forgiveness on the earthly side of the rail, and to celebrate, by sight, His victory over sin and death on the heavenly side, where we one day shall be if we persevere in this faith and finish the race, as all the saints have done?   May it be so, by God’s grace.  In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Abiding in the Truth: Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone

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Sermon for the Festival of the Reformation

Revelation 14:6-7  +  Romans 3:19-28  +  John 8:31-36

The Lutheran Reformation of the Church was about nothing more and nothing less than the Truth, the very truth that Jesus spoke about in our Gospel, the truth that makes men free.  The Lutheran Reformation was about telling the truth boldly, telling the truth courageously, telling the truth steadfastly, no matter what the consequences might be, because the truth makes men free, but error is poison for the soul.  The Reformation was about standing up to popes and rulers and church councils and declaring that they were not telling the truth.   It meant turmoil in the Church and turmoil in society.  It meant men like Martin Luther risking their reputations, their careers, their livelihoods and their lives.  And it meant congregations all over Europe having to choose between the glory and prestige of Rome on the one hand, and the humble teaching of a German pastor on the other.  What could cause men to take such a stand?  What could move congregations to follow them?  Only the power of the Truth and the strength of Spirit-worked conviction.

The truth of the Reformation fills the Book of Concord of 1580 and many, many other writings from that era as well.  But it has been neatly summarized in three simple phrases: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura.  By grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone.  That is the Truth in which the heirs of the Reformation abide.

SCRIPTURE – THE WORD OF GOD

We’ll begin with Scripture alone, the Word of God, because that’s where we learn about the grace of God toward the human race and the faith by which sinners are justified before God.

Jesus spoke in the Gospel “to the Jews who had believed Him.”  How had they come to believe Him?  By hearing His Word.  They had heard from the Holy Scriptures that the Messiah was coming to save them from their sins and to bring sinners into His eternal kingdom.  They had heard Jesus’ word calling them to repentance and faith in Him, the promised Messiah—the Christ.  And by the power of the Holy Spirit who is always at work in the Word, they had believed Him.

Now Jesus says to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  What does it mean to “abide” or to “remain” in Jesus’ word?  It means to go on hearing it and to go on believing in, depending on it, hanging onto it for dear life.  It means to stick with what Jesus says, no matter what anyone else in the world might say.  It means to stay firmly rooted and planted in Jesus’ word, not as a part of your life, but as the very source of your life, for now and for eternity. Those who abide in Jesus’ word are truly Jesus’ disciples.  They are the ones who know the truth.  They are the ones who are set free.

But you know how crafty the devil is.  He is constantly casting the Scriptures into doubt, always sending people back to their own reason and strength, back to their own human philosophies and traditions, in order to obscure the light of the Holy Scriptures, to keep men captive in his kingdom of darkness, or to bring the children of the light back into his darkness.

But the Word of God, the Word of Jesus, the Word of the Gospel will never be silenced.  Heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus said, but My words will never pass away. The light of the Gospel will never go out.  And for those few, for us few who believe God’s word and promise, the Gospel is still the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

The Reformation principle that Luther helped to restore was “by Scripture alone.”  By Scripture alone God has revealed Himself and His saving purpose and plan to mankind.  By Scripture alone we learn to know God the Father, and Jesus Christ, whom He sent.  By Scripture alone the Holy Spirit teaches us the truth and enlightens our hearts to believe in Jesus.  From Scripture alone all doctrine is to be drawn. And by Scripture alone we judge all doctrines, to see which are from God and which are from men.  Men can err.  Popes can err.  Councils and theologians and priests and pastors and seminaries and synods can err.  But the Word of the Lord remains forever.

BY GRACE ALONE

Jesus promises that those who abide in His Word will know the truth, and that truth centers around God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  By Grace Alone, another Reformation principle.

Grace is God’s free favor and love toward mankind.  It’s God’s willingness and desire to be kind and good and merciful to those who do not deserve it.  Grace, by definition, cannot be earned, cannot be purchased, cannot be bought.  Grace is always a gift, intended for those who can’t earn it, which is why no one who tries to earn it will ever receive it.

That was the case with the unbelieving Jews in the Gospel.  When Jesus promised that those who abide in His Word will know the truth and will be set free, they answered Him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”  You see, Jesus was offering them a gift, the gift of Himself, the gift of His sacrifice as payment for their sins, the gift of His righteousness as the replacement for their unrighteousness, the gift of freedom from slavery to sin, death and the devil.  He was the Son of God, the Son in the house who has the authority to set the slaves free.  He was offering it as grace to needy sinners, but the sinners who stood before Him didn’t view themselves as needy sinners, didn’t view themselves as slaves who needed to be freed.  And so they remained slaves.

That’s why the Apostle Paul spends about two whole chapters in the Epistle to the Romans demonstrating from God’s Law that all flesh, all people, Jews and Gentiles, are sinners, condemned by God’s Law to death and sentenced to suffer God’s righteous wrath for all eternity.  The whole purpose of the Law, the main goal of the Ten Commandments is so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Why, then, does God justify anyone, if no one deserves it?  Why, then, did God send His Son to redeem the lost and condemned human race, to be the propitiation, the sacrifice whose blood paid for all sin and whose righteousness satisfied the righteous requirements of the Law for all sinners?  The answer is grace, grace alone.

Luther fought the battle against the Roman papacy defending “by grace alone,” because the papacy had turned grace into an infusion of power into people making them able to earn God’s forgiveness and to merit eternal life.  People do the same thing today when they think they are somehow worthy to be God’s children, worthy to be in heaven, deserving of God’s love and favor.  But we hold to the Reformation principle that all people are, by nature, damned sinners, not worthy of a single favor from God, much less the free favor of eternal salvation and blessedness won for us by Jesus Christ.  Sinners are saved from damnation, are justified, are made heirs of eternal life by grace alone.

FAITH ALONE

That’s the reason why God saves and justifies sinners.  How, then, are sinful human beings saved?  How does God apply grace to people and to whom is it applied?  How are sinners justified—counted righteous by God?  You know this Reformation principle very well:  Sinners are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ.

That’s what Jesus had been repeating over and over and over throughout the Gospel of John.  You’re probably most familiar with what He says in John chapter 3: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

It’s what Paul says throughout Romans 3, 4 and 5.  The righteousness of God is not something we have to perform.  It’s a promise that God makes and that faith receives.  In the Gospel, God promises righteousness to all and on all who believe in Jesus.  God promises to consider righteous the one who has faith in Jesus, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  This faith God counts for righteousness in His sight.

And when God counts you righteous, tell me, what good thing can you possibly lack?  If God counts you righteous, then what does it matter if the whole world thinks badly of you?  If God counts you righteous, what does it matter if you are rich or poor or smart or simple or famous or a nobody, if you have lots of friends or not a friend in the world?  You have Jesus, His blood, His righteousness, His place in God’s household, His love, His friendship, His power, His strength and His promise to see you safely through this valley of the shadow of death into His eternal mansions.  That’s what you have by faith, my friends.  See what a precious gift faith is!

Faith was under attack at the time of the Reformation.  Rome taught that sinners are justified by faith plus works, with the emphasis on works, and so no one could be sure if he had enough works, and so no one could be sure he had any of those blessings that God promises.  But Luther taught the simple truth of Scripture, that sinners are justified by faith alone in Jesus, apart from the deeds of the Law.

You know all too well the battle that we have fought here and that still goes on throughout the world, the battle to preserve this saving truth that faith is the how of justification, that sinners are justified by faith in Christ Jesus and in no other way, certainly not by works, and certainly not by the absence of faith.

Many Christians through the ages have shed their blood defending this simple truth.  Many Lutherans have faced homelessness and imprisonment and the sword for taking a stand on the Reformation principles of grace alone, faith alone and Scripture alone.  Shall we be less willing than they to take a stand?  Shall we be content to hide out and escape persecution and trial and hardship by keeping our mouths shut, by going along to get along?  May it never be so!  God has graciously preserved His truth among us and will preserve us still, if we abide in His word.  Even that is beyond our capability, but God is faithful.  His Spirit is powerful and will continue to strengthen us through Word and Sacrament in every trial, in every hardship, in the face of every challenge.  And so we pray with Luther and also sing, Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word, as we abide with Luther and with the apostles and prophets and with all the saints in heaven and on earth in the truth of Jesus Christ, in the truth of the Reformation:  by grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone.  Amen.

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Come to the wedding feast of Christ

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Sermon for Trinity 20

Isaiah 55:1-9  +  Ephesians 5:15-21  +  Matthew 22:1-14

Come.  The invitation goes out to you, to each one of you.  Come.  God Himself is the one inviting.  Come to the feast that God has prepared.  Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

See! This feast is free.  It’s a feast of forgiveness of sins, eternal life and salvation.  It’s a feast where sin cannot harm, where the devil cannot accuse, where hatred has no place and where hell and condemnation are vanquished.

The feast is a wedding banquet, the wedding of God with sinners—which is just too incredible to believe, and yet, believe it.  The holy God, the loving God has chosen to feast with unholy, unloving people, but there’s only way for that to happen.  A cleansing must take place. God’s eternal Son had to join himself to our humanity and become Man and suffer and die and rise from the dead in order to cleanse a Church for himself with a baptismal cleansing that sprinkles sinners with the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, where sins are washed away and the dead are raised to life, where sinners are born again and incorporated into the Bride of Christ.

This is the wedding that Paul describes in Ephesians 5, Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

In our Gospel, Jesus describes in a parable how the Jewish people were invited to this feast ahead of time, before the Word of God became flesh and made His dwelling among us.  They were invited by the Prophets to trust in the Christ whom God had promised to send, and when He came, they were invited by John the Baptist and by Jesus Himself to come to Him, to believe in Him and to rejoice in His salvation.

But they wouldn’t, most of them.  They wouldn’t come.  They didn’t want to come.  Why?  Because water means little to people who aren’t thirsty, and food is meaningless to those who are already stuffed.  Even with all their burdensome laws and rules and regulations, the Jews still wanted to feast with God in some other way than through faith in His Son.  Even though God’s grace is free, and He offers wine and milk without money and without price, they were determined to pay for it, to earn it.  They wanted praise from God for their good works, for their good lives.  The last thing they wanted to do was to check their own worthiness at the door and dine with Jesus.

Here’s how Jesus describes the response of the Jewish people to God’s invitation.  They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized the king’s servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.  Some made excuses and simply didn’t follow Jesus.  Others got angry at the prophets for telling the truth and killed them.  And when Jesus came, when the feast was ready, when God came down to earth to cleanse sinners from their sins, they killed Jesus, too.  And this same pattern of rejection, apathy and persecution of the Gospel has repeated itself and will continue to repeat itself until Jesus comes again.

How did God respond to their excuses?  How did God respond to their persecution of His prophets?  How did God respond to their crucifixion of His Son?  The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.   God rejected the Jewish nation, for the most part, and continues to reject those who turn down His gracious invitation, those who seek salvation somewhere else, those who persecute the prophets and apostles and ministers who are sent by God.

But God doesn’t cancel His feast.  His Son has been sent.  His blood has been shed, and God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth, to come to this feast, to know the love of Christ and to receive forgiveness from His hand.

He sends out His servants—the Apostles, and their successors—pastors who proclaim the Gospel of Christ.  He sends them out to gather the Gentiles, like you and me, to bring us to faith in Christ through His Gospel, to bring us into His feast through Holy Baptism and to feed and nourish our faith with Word and Sacrament.

See how the king describes us—like people just hanging around on the side of the road, both bad and good.  You don’t get into this feast by your goodness and you aren’t kept out by your badness.  It’s all about Christ.  It’s by faith in Christ that we come in.  And God the Holy Spirit will continue to fill the wedding hall with guests until Jesus returns for judgment.

And when He returns, all those who are outside the wedding hall—unbelievers, non-Christians—will be locked out forever.  But Jesus also issues a warning for those who are inside.  When the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.

What is this about the wedding garment?  In the parable, it has to do with a special robe that the king had provided to all of his guests, but this man wasn’t wearing it.  The robe is Christ and His perfect righteousness which we put on by faith in Him.  He has given this robe to everyone who comes to baptism, but tragically, many who are once baptized fall away from faith and will be found on the Last Day not wearing the robe they were once given.  They are the Christians who were once baptized but wander away from the Church.  They are the Christians who know the Gospel, but still cling to works, still cling to self, still cling to something more than Christ and His Gospel. They are Christians in name, but not in faith, and therefore, also not in genuine works of love, which only flow from faith. Their fate, in the end, will be the same as those who rejected the king’s invitation in the first place.

Why does Jesus end His parable on this sour note?  Because He loves us.  He loves you and He wants you to remain firmly rooted in Him with a living faith—the kind that looks to Him alone for forgiveness, for strength, for comfort and peace.  The kind that is satisfied with Christ, that longs for Christ and loves Him as a bride loves the groom.  The kind of faith that trusts in Him when the earth itself seems to give way under you feet.  The kind of faith that allows you to stand against the world for the sake of His Gospel, and to suffer all things, even death, rather than forsake it or compromise it, even a little bit.

That faith will not disappoint you. It has not disappointed us, because Christ reigns at the right hand of God and works all things together for good to those who love Him.  He has demonstrated His power and His grace in our midst and has stood by us and caused His Gospel to stand.

Now He continues to call you by the Gospel, to invite you to remain in Him, to keep trusting in Him.  He gives you His Word.  He gives you His body and blood.  Come.  Come to the feast.  Come, not as a spectator, but as one who is included in the Bride.  Come.  Because at this feast which is Christ, there is forgiveness, there is life, and there is salvation, for you.  Through Jesus Christ alone. Amen.

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Forgiveness in the present tense

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Sermon for Trinity 19

Genesis 28:10-17  +  Ephesians 4:22-28  +  Matthew 9:1-8

Let’s be real and open here this morning.  Depending on the vote this next Wednesday, this is either my last sermon from this pulpit, or it’s the last sermon I’ll preach to you as a congregation of the WELS.  In my 5-1/2 years here I don’t think I’ve ever deviated from the assigned Scripture readings for any given Sunday, and today certainly won’t be the exception.  It’s the 19th Sunday after Trinity, and the Gospel before us today is the same Gospel that was before Martin Luther every year on the 19th Sunday after Trinity, Matthew 9:1-8.  I couldn’t haven’t have asked for a more relevant text.

In the OT lesson we encountered Jacob’s ladder, or the stairway to heaven.  There has to be a stairway or a ladder because of sin.  Sin cuts us off from God.  Sin makes us ugly and selfish and wicked and unable to approach God. We have no access to Him any longer.  Just remember why Jacob was fleeing from his brother Esau—for Jacob’s own deception and self-serving lies. But here in Jacob’s dream, there is a stairway, a ladder where heaven and earth are connected again.  Where could such a ladder be?  What could it be?

The ladder is Jesus.  He says so in the Gospel of John (chapter 1).  Jesus, the Son of God, Jesus the Son of Man, brings God and man back together.  How does He do it?  By bearing the sins of mankind, by satisfying the righteous requirements of God’s law and by satisfying the Law’s demands that sinful man must die.  In the Person of Jesus Christ, God and Man come together and are united.  In the Person of Jesus, God and man are reconciled. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God has opened up a place on earth where sinful man can have access to Him.  The ladder is set in place. The ladder is firm and reliable—the one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.  Here there is forgiveness for all, here on this ladder.  But not anywhere else.

We encounter Jacob’s ladder again in the Gospel—Jesus bringing God down to earth, Jesus giving sinners access to God, through the forgiveness of sins.

To whom does He give such access?  To the sinner who is paralyzed and lying on a mat, to a sinner who can do nothing to help himself, either physically or spiritually; to the sinner who is brought to Jesus for help.

His friends already had faith in Jesus.  It tells us that here.  Jesus saw their faith.  He could see into their hearts, but He could also see with His eyes. They came to Him for help.  They wouldn’t have come to Him for help if they didn’t have faith in Him.  That’s the simplest definition of faith: to come to Jesus for help, to expect good things from Him, not because you’re good, but because He is good. They had already heard the Word of Jesus’ kindness and goodness, of His love toward undeserving sinners.  So they brought their friend to Him to be healed, and they weren’t disappointed.  Faith never is.

Jesus healed the paralytic, first spiritually, then physically.  He said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  Your sins are forgiven…  Let’s consider that statement. What is Jesus doing here?  Is He announcing a fact that was already true before the paralytic and his friends came down through the roof?  “Your sins were forgiven before you were born”? Or, is He announcing a fact that will be true in a couple of years when Jesus dies on the cross?  “Your sins will be forgiven in two years time”? Or, is He actually forgiving that man his sins right there on the spot?

The phrase can cause confusion in English.  “Your sins are forgiven.”  A mom could say to her son or daughter, “Your clothes are washed and waiting for you in your closet.”  And what she means is, your clothes were washed at some time before; they have been washed and are now clean. 

But that’s not what the words mean in this Gospel.  Not, “Your sins were forgiven.”  Not, “Your sins will be forgiven in two years when I die on the cross.” No, Jesus speaks in the present tense, more like, “OK, here are your sins and your guilt.  You know them all too well.  They are vile and offensive and would keep you locked out of heaven forever.  But take heart, my son, because right here, right now I take them from you and throw them away.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are clean.  You have access to God.  Why?  Because I say so!”

By the authority of the Son of God Himself, by the authority of the God-Man, who is Himself the very bridge or the ladder between heaven and earth, between God and man, by the authority of Jesus Christ, the sins of the paralytic man were removed from him and sent away right then and there in the present tense.  He was innocent before God, righteous, absolved, justified by the Son of God Himself—forgiven in the present tense. And the paralytic was comforted and given peace.

But the scribes who were there grumbled.  Who does he think he is?, they thought.  This man is blaspheming.  In other words, he is slandering God by claiming to have God’s authority.  Only God can forgive sins.

Exactly right.  Only God can forgive sins.  See what Jesus was claiming for Himself by doing what only God has the authority to do!  He speaks about this authority more in John chapter 5, For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.

Why does Jesus have the right to execute judgment—to free sinners from condemnation through the forgiveness of sins?  Not only because He is God, but because He earned the right as the Son of Man.  Worthy is the Lamb that was slain. He took the burden of the Law upon Himself and obeyed it, down to the letter.  He shed His blood on the cross and acquired this treasure of forgiveness, eternal life and salvation for the whole world of sinners.  He earned it on the cross.  It belongs to Him, and it is His alone to give out.

Where does He do it?  Where does He give it out?  On earth.  “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” When does He do it?  When does He forgive sins? Right here, right now in the present tense.  “…authority on earth to forgive sins.”  Not to announce that sins were forgiven or will be forgiven at some other time.  But authority on earth to forgive sins.  How does He do it?  How does He forgive sins? By speaking the Word of forgiveness, that glorious, Spirit-filled Word of promise.  Take heart, my son.  Your sins are forgiven

But Jesus, the ladder between heaven and earth, isn’t here living and walking among us like He was during His earthly ministry, is He?  No matter.  The Son of Man, before He ascended from earth to heaven, promised to leave a ladder for His Church, and on the Day of Pentecost, He granted it by sending His Holy Spirit.  Now it is the Holy Spirit who brings Christ the ladder to the earth again, wherever the Word of Christ is preached.

Where does the Son of Man forgive sins?  Still here on earth, through this ministry of the Word authorized by Jesus Himself.  He said to His apostles, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heavenIf you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.  If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. Where does the Son of Man forgive sins?  In the word of the Gospel, telling of the goodness, mercy and love of Jesus for sinners; telling of His sacrifice and His resurrection from the dead.  In the waters of Holy Baptism where water and Word are combined.  In the sacred meal called Holy Communion where bread and wine and Word are united.  To whom does He forgive sins?  To every sinner who seeks it from Him.  He has acquired forgiveness for all, so that all who look to Him receive from Him forgiveness of sins, grace and every blessing.

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that He has merited forgiveness of sins for the human race, that He promises this forgiveness to all who believe in Him, and that all who believe receive exactly what He promises, the forgiveness of sins, by grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone.  And, as our Lutheran Confessions say, “to receive the forgiveness of sins is to be justified.”

As you well know, this is the Gospel I preach—with faltering lips and in great weakness—, that sinners are justified by faith alone in Christ.  This is the Gospel for which I have been condemned by the district presidium of the WELS and by the synod that I called home for 35 years.  That hurts me.  It hurts you.  It hurts the whole Christian Church on earth and in heaven.  So be it.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  The forgiving Word of Jesus gives us strength to stand against an army, to stand against the whole world, to stand against the devil himself, and to stand in God’s presence now and on the Last Day without sin and without fear, because if the Judge has spoken to you the Word of forgiveness, who can overturn His decision?

A decision will be made at this church three days from now.  Choose wisely.  The Lord Jesus says one thing; the WELS has said another.  As Joshua once charged the people of Israel, Choose you this day whom ye will serve.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.  Amen.

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The Law requires love from you. The Gospel gives the love of Christ to you.

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Sermon for Trinity 18

Deuteronomy 10:12-21  +  1 Corinthians 1:4-9  +  Matthew 22:34-46

Today’s Gospel is very simply divided into two questions:  What does God require of you?  And what does God give to you?  The first question is Law.  The second question is Gospel. 

The answer to the first question, what does God require of you?, is love.  The Pharisees tested Jesus and asked, Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?  What would he say?  Keep the Sabbath Day? Well, they had done that, better than Jesus, in their minds.  You shall not murder?  Check.  Say your prayers?  Check.  Give the required tithe to God?  Check, and then some.  “What does God require of us, Jesus?  Tell us, and we’ll show you what good and righteous people we are.  Then go away and leave us alone.  We’re perfectly capable of pleasing God without you.”

But Jesus’ answer went beyond superficial obedience.  You shall love – not just “God” in general, not just any old “god” – You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul and mind.  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  True obedience to God’s Law always begins in the heart, with love and devotion, love that is pure and untainted by selfishness, love that seeks the good of another at the expense of self.  True obedience to God’s Law always puts God first, your neighbor second, and yourself – well, God never commanded you to love yourself or to serve yourself.  Love is what God requires of you—love for God and love for your neighbor.  The Ten Commandments are God’s own summary of what love looks like in practice.

How does a person love God? By fearing Him. By trusting in Him.  By accepting whatever good things or bad things He sends. By keeping His name holy and hearing and learning His Word, gladly, eagerly, above all things.  By suffering whatever He wills and by obeying whatever He commands, not because you have to, but because you love to, because you love what He commands and would gladly set aside everything and everyone in your life, even your life itself, in order to have God, in order to serve God, with all your heart, soul and mind.

How does a person love his neighbor as himself? By honoring the authorities in your home, in your government and in your church. By caring for your neighbor’s body and respecting your neighbor’s marriage. By protecting your neighbor’s property and guarding your neighbor’s good name.

The opposite of love is obvious: selfishness, hatred, envy, discord, dishonor, disobedience.  The cold shoulder.  The scowling “hello.”  It’s pulling people aside, “Do you know what so-and-so did?  Can you believe it?  My neighbor is so mean!  I can’t stand my neighbor! I want to get rid of my neighbor.  No, I will not talk to him.  No, I will not be nice to her.  I could never love her!  I could never love him!”

And yet, what does God require of you?  Love.  I stand condemned by God’s Law.  So do you.

So did the Pharisees in our Gospel.  So does everyone.  The greatest commandment is love.  But who does it?  Who has it?  Who shows it?  Out of our hearts comes every form of evil imaginable.  If keeping God’s law were just a matter of saying your prayers, going to church, giving to charity and not murdering anybody, then we could all do that.  But if keeping God’s law is a matter of living our entire lives in heartfelt love and devotion to God and our neighbor, then we must perish.

But knowing that the Law of love leaves us hopeless and desperate, Jesus asks another question and points us in another direction.  He points us away from the question, “What does God require of you?” and points instead to the question, “What does God give to you?”  He holds up the Law to us and when we see the cold, hard truth—that we have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, that we cannot help ourselves, that we stand condemned by the Law of love, Jesus shows us Himself, the Savior, the Christ, and summons us to Himself so that He may give us His own record of love and law-keeping and save us from sin, death and hell.

 “What do you think about the Christ?” Jesus asked the Pharisees. “Whose son is he?” That’s easy, thought the Pharisees.  They said to him, “The son of David.”  Everyone in Israel knew that God had promised to David a thousand years before Christ that his son – his descendent – would sit on his throne and reign forever.  Everyone knew that the Christ was to be the son of David.

But the Pharisees had trouble with Jesus’ next question.  “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”  Jesus quoted this verse from Psalm 110 to the Pharisees, and it seems like they had never even considered this before.  David is writing the Psalm.  David is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  David is writing about his son, the Christ.  And David calls his son, “My Lord.”  How can he call his son his Lord?

 

The Pharisees couldn’t answer Jesus’ question.  They were stumped, and so embarrassed that they didn’t dare to test Jesus ever again.  The time for “study” and “discussion of God’s Word” was over, because they couldn’t answer Jesus’ words. Instead, they would just call for his crucifixion.

 

Now, for us who have learned the Christian faith, the answer to Jesus’ question is easy: According to the flesh, the Christ is the son of David, from the house and line of David, born of David’s distant daughter Mary, and legally the son of David’s distant son Joseph.  But by his miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit, the Christ is the Son of God – the very Son of God who was with God the Father in the beginning, God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father, by whom all things were made. On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angel announced the mystery: Today, in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ – the Lord!

 

God requires love from you.  Thus says the Law.  But all who live under the Law live under a curse: Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.  Why did the Christ come as the son of David? To be born under the Law, to live under the Law, and to die under the Law, to become a curse for us.  Why did the Christ come as David’s Lord, the Son of God?  To keep the Law perfectly, to pay for the sins of all men, and to earn the righteousness that counts before God, the righteousness of God’s Son who is also the Son of Man, and therefore, a valid Substitute for you and for me and for all men.

 

His is the righteousness that counts before God.  His law-keeping.  His obedience.  His love. What does God give?  He gives His Son to you as a gift.  He gives the goodness of His Son to cover your badness.  He gives the righteousness of His Son to cover all your unrighteousness. God’s promise to sinners like you and me is that He will count the love of Jesus as if it were your own.  He will consider righteous, not the person who keeps the Law, but the person who believes in Christ – the son of David, the Son of God – for righteousness and forgiveness and eternal life.

 

And so God calls all men to repentance, because all you have in yourself is sin and unrighteousness.  But as you look around for a helper, for a Savior, see!  He then calls you to faith in His Son, your Mediator, your Justifier, to trust in his righteousness, his obedience, his death on the cross for you.  You have been justified through faith in Christ, and now you have peace with God.  You have had your sins washed away in Holy Baptism, and now you have full access to God and his grace and mercy and love.  You continue to receive God’s forgiveness and life and salvation in his Gospel and in his Sacraments.  What you receive there is Christ himself, God’s gift to you, and through him, a gracious Father in heaven.

 

Instead of pointing you to what you do, Christ points you to himself.  Instead of requiring that you worship God by giving God something, God wants to be worshiped through faith so that we receive from Him those things He promises and offers.

 

You who believe in Christ Jesus are no longer judged under the Law, but under the grace of Jesus Christ, in whom you believe.  And now, it’s you, the saints of God, and not the Pharisees, who are truly enabled and inspired to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.  It is you, the saints of God, you who are saved by the Gospel, who have been recreated to conform to the likeness of Jesus, to fear, love and trust in God above all things, and to serve your neighbor in love—not because your neighbor loves you, but because God loves you; not because of what you’ll get out of it, but because of what God has already given you: His love, His presence, His strength, and His forgiveness, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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The best place is the lowest place

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Sermon for Trinity 17

Proverbs 25:6-14  +  Ephesians 4:1-6  +  Luke 14:1-11

Today’s Gospel overturns all the wisdom of the world.  The world seeks glory and honor, comfort and success.  The Christian simply seeks Christ.  The world seeks to get ahead by living according to the Law. The Christian understands that the Law of God doesn’t get us ahead at all.  On the contrary, it drives us down to the lowest place, down below everyone else, where, as believers in Christ who receive all things from Him for free, we can truly begin to serve our neighbor in love.  The people of the world run after first place, for their own gratification.  But the people of God run in the opposite direction.  The people of God seek the place of dishonor, the place of lowliness and humility, because that’s where Jesus is, to lift us up to glory that the world will never comprehend.  Only the Holy Spirit can make us understand all this.

Today we see Jesus invited to a banquet at a Pharisee’s house, not because the Pharisees loved Jesus, but because they wanted to watch Him, to evaluate Him, to catch Him saying something or doing something that they could use against Him.  The Pharisees and the lawyers gathered to sit in judgment on their neighbor, even to sit in judgment on Jesus.  See how they had exalted themselves!

But then we a sick man, a man with dropsy—that painful swelling of the limbs, especially the legs.  He didn’t come to judge anyone.  He came only with his sickness, and with faith in Christ, trusting that Jesus was good and merciful and would help him in his need.  How did he come by this faith?  The same way anyone comes by this faith.  He had heard the Gospel; he had heard that Jesus was good and kind and merciful, that He forgives sin, that He helps the lowly and heals all who come to Him for help.  That’s who Jesus is.  And by hearing that Gospel, the man with dropsy was encouraged to seek Jesus.  He knew that he would find in Jesus a faithful friend.

The Pharisees saw an opportunity.  Aha!  A sick man, and Jesus the healer.  But it’s the Sabbath day!  And we consider healing to be work that violates the Sabbath.  Aha!  We’ll catch Jesus in “clear” violation of God’s Law.  So Jesus puts the question to them: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  But they remained silent.  They didn’t want to say that it was lawful to heal, because they cared nothing for the man with dropsy, and they wanted to condemn Jesus for healing.  But they didn’t want to tell him it was unlawful, because that would be awfully hard to prove from God’s Law.  They just sat there silently, wickedly, and waited for Jesus to act, so that they could jump on Him and condemn Him afterwards as a law-breaker and a sinner.

But Jesus foiled their plan with a question that none of them could answer.  “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?”  Of course, all of them would do that.  So they could hardly condemn Jesus for showing love to this sick man and healing him, even though it was the Sabbath day. Jesus showed them that love for the neighbor is the goal of the law, even the summary of the Law, as the Apostle Paul says, “Love is the fulfillment of the law.”

And then Jesus drives it home to the Pharisees and the guests at the Pharisee’s house with a parable.  He watches the lovelessness going on around him, the self-centeredness.  He sees as everyone rushes to save the best seat for himself, as each one pushes past the others to get what he wants, to grab the highest place, the place of honor at the banquet.

And so Jesus tells this little parable in which He shows them that instead of running for the highest place, they should be running toward the lowest place, the place of least honor, the place of disgrace and humiliation, because it’s better to be raised to a higher place by the master of the banquet than to be humiliated by the master of the banquet and cast down to the bottom by him.  It doesn’t matter what your neighbor thinks about you.  What matters is what God thinks about you.  And here God reveals that He thinks very little of the one who exalts himself.  But He thinks very highly of the one who humbles himself, who seeks the lowest place, who makes himself the servant of all, who considers others to be better than himself.

Why? Because that’s Jesus.  Jesus’ love for rebellious sinners caused Him to lower Himself down, further and further, down to taking on human flesh, down to becoming a servant of sinners, down to humiliation and obedience to His Father’s Law for us, in order to redeem us and raise us up.

This is what Paul says to the Philippians, So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Now the love of Christ pushes us down, further and further, down to the lowest place, down to the utmost humility, where He shows us our sin, where He leads us to repentance, where He shows us that none of us deserves anything from God, so therefore, none of us can be any more deserving than our neighbors around us.  In that place where you know you’re a wretch and you’ve messed up everything, where you know you’re a sinner; in that place where you look around at your fellow sinners and you recognize that we’re all equally messed up, there, in the lowest place, Christ’s Spirit empties us.  He kills us with our pride and bitterness and anger, but He doesn’t leave us for dead, even as He didn’t leave Jesus for dead.

On the contrary, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There in the lowest place is where the superabundant treasure of God’s grace is found—every treasure He has to give, all wrapped up in Christ.  Christ is found in the lowest place and summons us down to where He is.  As long as you’re seeking to exalt yourself, you’re cut off from the Gospel.  When you stop trying to exalt yourself, that’s when you hear the Gospel proclaiming to you, Christ Jesus is everything.  He is your Savior from sin. His blood made atonement for all sin. He has washed you with His blood through Holy Baptism.  Your sins are forgiven and heaven is yours. See how He lifts you up and exalts you through faith in Him, even to the heights of heaven, even to the status of a saint.

Is there any joy to be found in this lowliness and humility? Is there joy here in this Christian Church?  Maybe you think you remember a time when the church was a more joyful place.  Maybe you mourn the loss of that joy.  I understand.  But now I ask, what is the joy of the Christian?  The world seeks joy in superficial things, in external things, worldly things.  Christian joy is found in only one place—at the bottom, in the lowest place.  Why?  Because that’s where Jesus is, with all His love and faithfulness; in the gutter, with sinners.  That’s where the one Lord, one faith, one Baptism is found, all wrapped up in Christ.

So what has changed?  OK, so you see disunity and anger and bitterness around you.  Things seem to be unstable and uncertain.  But are they, really?  What has changed?  Is Christ now dead?  Has His blood lost its cleansing power?  Has a single promise of His ever failed?  No.  Jesus still lives, and His blood is as precious today as it has always been. Has the Gospel ceased to be the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes?  Has your Baptism lost its power to cover you?  Are the body and blood of Christ gone from the Sacrament of the Altar?  Has God’s Spirit left you? No, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and forever. Nothing has changed.

Now Christ summons you to follow Him down into the depths, to bear the cross He gives and to not be afraid.  He who has called you to follow Him is faithful.  He has tied Himself to you in Holy Baptism.  Where He has gone, you must go, and it won’t be pleasant in this life.  But you won’t go alone.  He’s with you.  This life for the Christian is the cross of humiliation, but that means you’re together with Jesus on the path, even now.  It’s the next life, the life after death, the resurrection from the dead, that’s where you will find the crown of glory and eternal joy in His presence.

See, this is what Paul says to the Philippians, 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The best place for the Christian is the lowest place, because from there, our exaltation, our being lifted up again is a sure thing.  It’s just that, it happens on God’s timetable, not ours.  It happens when God wills, not when we will, which means that we simply have to be still. We simply have to wait, and to trust.  Be still, and know that I am God, he says.  I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.  Wait for the Lord.  Be strong and let your heart take courage.  Wait for the Lord.  Amen.

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