Thanks be to God!

Exodus 16:1-5, 11-15

Thanksgiving Day

November 24, 2022

Focus:  God is always and forever faithful.

Function:  That the hearers give thanks to God for all of His good gifts.

Structure:  .

Thanks be to God

            “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  The Apostle Paul wrote those words to the Christians living in the city of Thessalonica.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  That we have to set aside a specific day to give thanks may be an indicator that our sinful nature often gets the better of us.

            So it was for God’s Old Testament people, His holy nation of Israel.  Having been enslaved for quite some time, the people cry out to God for deliverance, that He would save them.  And He does!  God sends a series of ten miracles upon the land of Egypt, mighty acts of power by which He displays His authority over all of creation.  None of Egypt’s gods could measure up.  None could defend their own people against God’s outstretched arm. 

The people of God saw all the water in the land turn into blood.  They saw frogs multiplied in Egypt so numerous that they covered the land, the beds, and the cookware.  A plague of gnats.  Then they saw God draw a distinction.  The fourth plague and onward didn’t happen in the land of Goshen where God’s people lived.  Egypt all around them suffered, but God’s hand shielded His own people.  Flies, the death of the livestock, boils that covered the flesh, hailstones larger than history has ever seen, locusts that devoured anything edible in the land, and then a darkness so thick that not only could you not see your own hand, but you could even feel the darkness.  For three days.  While the light shined on in Goshen for God’s people.  The last miracle was the judgment of God against all the firstborn sons in every house in the land of Egypt.  Such a night of mourning the Egyptians haven’t had since.

And for Israel?  Just slaughter a lamb, and paint its blood on your doorframe.  What a weird instruction!  What’s that going to do?  By God’s Word, provide salvation.  By His promise, mark your home as one to be passed over, so that no judgment would befall your family that night. 

And the Israelites listened.  They’d just seen and witnessed the first nine miracles of God.  And while this last one didn’t make a lot of sense, they took Him at His Word and they did it.  They slaughtered their lambs and they prepared to leave Egypt.

But, they didn’t give thanks.  Instead, they responded to God’s gift of salvation by grumbling against Him, complaining that His salvation wasn’t good enough!  Our text this morning isn’t even the first time.  They complained against Moses at the Red Sea when Pharaoh’s army had given them chase and pinned them down.  They grumbled saying it would’ve been better to have died in Egypt.

And the Lord responded with patience and deliverance.  But now, even having seen the mighty hand of God again, to part the Red Sea so that it could be crossed on dry ground, and then to close it again upon the world’s greatest army, drowning them all in an act of great judgment, even now they don’t give thanks, they just complain more.  They turn to Moses and they grumble.  “Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

And yet the Lord was patient with them again.  He offers them food, to feed them with bread and meat to the full, matching their complaint.  It comes with a test, to see if they will trust Him, trust His Word.  He will put the bread on the ground new each morning.  Don’t horde it.  Don’t hold back.  Take what you need.  Eat your fill.  Keep none till morning.  Only on the sixth day should they break that pattern, taking twice as much, as the seventh day would be a day of rest.

Would they give thanks this time?  Would they listen to God’s instructions?  No, again.  Instead, they respond to God’s gift of food with distrust.  They don’t believe His Word that He’ll put the bread on the ground new each morning.  Many horde it for themselves, keeping it overnight, making plans to provide for themselves the next day.  But it rotted.  Overnight worms grew in it and it stank.  And when the sixth day came, many didn’t gather twice as much, they didn’t prepare for the Sabbath rest as God commanded, but instead, many went out that morning to gather, only to find none.

The Lord displayed His patience to them yet again.  In Numbers 11, God would provide the gift of meat again, of quail beyond imagination.  From the edge of the camp, spreading outward all the way around it, quail as far as the eye could see, a day’s journey.  And they were piled up 2 cubits high, roughly 36 inches. 

But when the Lord set them free to eat, did they give thanks to Him for this gift?  No, they showed their greed and their hording natures that even the person who gathered the least gathered ten homers, which is 2200 liters or about 581 gallons.  We go through a lot of milk jugs in my house, so gallons is a measurement I can understand.  581 gallons’ worth of quail.  That’s a lot of trips back and forth from the pile to the supply they were building up in their own tents.  It’s hard to even fathom what their homes looked like at that point, with so much quail.  They couldn’t possibly have eaten it all.  But they tried.  And “while the meat was yet between their teeth,” God struck them down.  He sent a plague upon them, and “there they buried the people who had the craving.”

There’s a phrase I’ve not used in a sermon to describe sin before: the craving.  But you can see it, right?  Give thanks to God for His gift?  No, we want more!  Give thanks to God for His salvation?  No, we want something different!  Whatever the Lord offered, the sinful nature rebutted.  Whatever God gave, the sinner rejected.  The craving.  The desires of our wicked hearts are nothing but evil continuously (Genesis 6:5).

It would be all too easy to examine this craving within ourselves.  And we do, as Christians, often.  We are among the wealthiest people in the world.  But, rather than give thanks, we invented a new holiday, one on which we would go out and spend lots of money on junk we don’t need the day after giving God thanks for the all the stuff we already have.  Rather than thanking God for the food that He blesses us with each day, we complain about the prices of groceries while we stuff ourselves.  And rather than rejoice in the free gift of salvation, we grumble about having to get ready, having to get to church, how long the service will last, if it’ll cut into our time for family or fun.

Like Israel, we must repent.  The craving is not good.  It doesn’t build us up, it doesn’t build one another up, it doesn’t build up His Church and His kingdom.  The craving of our sinful hearts only leads us to want more continuously, to say that what God has done for us is not enough.

How many of us have committed the same sin more than once?  How many of us have committed the same sin more times than we can count?  How many of us avoid daily prayer and Scripture because we’re just too busy or bored to receive His good gifts? 

And yet God remains patient also with us.  God remains faithful to us even though we fail to be faithful to Him.  God didn’t look down upon us from His throne, in the throws of our sin, and pull the plug.  He didn’t say He had had it up to *here* and then cast us out forever.  He forgave us.  And then He forgave us again.  And again.  And seventy-seven times.  And seventy times seven times.  Through the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, our sins are forgiven.  All of them.  Even the ones we’ve lost count of.  Gone.  Done.  His.  Dead.  Buried.

If it were up to us, if we had to straighten out our acts and live perfect lives before we perished, not one of us would make it.  The great Apostle Paul declared himself chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and the only one of Jesus’ disciples to not die of martyrdom declared “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” (1 John 1:8).  But, we know how to respond to that: “But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:9).

Thanks be to God!  Thanks be to God for His patience, that He puts up with this miserable sinner.  Thanks be to God for His love, that He can look upon me and see His own dear child.  Thanks be to God for His forgiveness, that He has given His own life in exchange for mine, shedding His blood to free me from my craving.  Thanks be to God that He continues to provide us with our daily bread, with all that we need to sustain this body and life.

*Pause

This reading of Scripture will always have a special place for my family, as it’s where our oldest daughter’s name comes from.  Talia Faith.  Tal is the Hebrew word for “dew” and the “ia” ending is the divine name of Yahweh; so her name means, “dew of Yahweh.”  And faith comes from the old Latin word for “trust.”  Her name is linked to this text, that Yahweh used the dew each morning for forty years to provide food for His people.  Teaching them to trust in Him for their daily bread.  Manna.  What is it?  A bread that tastes like wafers made with honey.  Good stuff.  Solid food.  We pray that her name will be a constant reminder throughout her life to trust that God will always provide for her in the wilderness of this broken world till Christ returns or calls her home.  Thanks be to God for all His gifts to us!

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

The Salvation You Long for Isn’t Coming

Luke 23:27-43

Proper 29

November 20, 2022

Focus:  God saves us not in a flash of fiery victory and glory, but in bloody pain and torment.

Function:  That the hearers mature in their prayers, not longing for this life, but the life everlasting.

Structure:  Not this…or this…or this…but this.

The Salvation You Long for Isn’t Coming

            Crrrr-chh!  Crrr-chh!  Crrr-ch!  The sky is yet pink as the sun rises, and we can almost see it: the Roman soldier, and the whip, the flagrum of broken bone and metal as it drags across Jesus’ back, tearing at His flesh.  We can picture the Man recoiling from the pain.  We can see the blood flying through the air as the whip is wrenched back only to prepare to strike again.

            And then having dragged Him before the crowds once more, and hearing their insistent demands that He be crucified, Pilate orders it done.  He delivers Jesus over to his men, to lead the way.  Jesus bears the burden of His cross upon His shoulder to begin the parade of shame.  To carry the tool of His death and execution, to bear our shame publicly.  And so they paraded Him from the presence of Pilate in the city, through the streets, towards the gate.

            We can imagine being one of the bystanders.  Being in that grotesque processional.  Standing along the dirt road, in the midst of a swell of people, being held back by the Roman soldiers from getting too close to their Prisoner.  We can see Jesus walking by.  Slowly, burdened by the massive beam of lumber held over His shoulder.  We can see the blood soaking through His garments, falling below and mixing with the dirt beneath His feet.  We can see the streaks of red dripping down from His forehead from the holes pierced by His crown.

            So they wept.  So the people wept.  Perhaps this is the same crowd from five days ago.  Perhaps this is the same crowd who came to the first parade, to the triumphal processional as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Perhaps this is that same crowd now, who longed for salvation, who shouted “Hosanna!” which means, “Save us now!”   Five days ago, they shouted joyously.  But today, as they see their Deliverer paraded to His execution at the hands of the very empire they had hoped He would save them from, today they shout in tears and pain.

            And Jesus rebukes them.  “Do not weep for Me, but weep for yourselves. … The days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore!’ … They will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ … For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

            The salvation you want isn’t coming.  At all.  Ever.  Your eyes are fixed on the wrong thing.  You weep because you wanted salvation from Rome.  You weep because you wanted a better life now!  You wanted revenge.  You wanted your oppressors defeated.  You wanted to live free.  To do whatever you wanted and to have a cozy and quiet life. 

The salvation you want isn’t coming.  In fact, it’s about to get worse.  Pray for yourselves.  Weep for yourselves.  Because destruction is coming.  Jesus refers them a generation forward, forty years out, when the Roman empire would come and desecrate the remains of Jerusalem, razing the city to the ground, and leaving the temple in shambles, so thoroughly that not one stone was left upon another.  And it will be so ugly, so brutal, at the hands of this empire of men, that the people will begin to turn to the mountains and pray, “Fall on us!”  For it would be better to be crushed in an instant, than to die by the hands of Roman torment and torture.

“If they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”  If they’re willing to act this way today.  If they’re willing to do these horrid things while the tree still stands, while life is still to be had, to torture, attack, and crucify God in the flesh.  If things can look this grotesque when there is still time for hope, what will things look like when there is no hope, when God’s judgment has been decreed?  If the Jewish leaders act this way against an innocent Man, how will the Romans act towards a rebellious people?  History knows only some of the horrors that the Roman General Titus committed, and the late first century Jewish historian Josephus claimed the death toll topped a million.

The salvation you want isn’t coming.  This applies even to us today.  I say this not to be rude, and please hear me out on this point.  We want what they wanted.  We want to live nice and quiet and cozy and luxurious and long lives.  We look for salvation to be our best lives now. 

Consider our prayers.  Consider the Prayers of the Church that you hear here week after week.  Twenty-two petitions for healing.  I’m not saying it’s wrong to pray for healing.  But is that all there is?  Is our only hope to feel a little better today so that we can enjoy another couple of days?  To live a little longer in this broken mess of misery and death?  To be healed, only to get sick again?  To recover only to one day yet die?  Is that all that we long for?  Here are some requests that I’ve never been asked to pray in the Prayers of the Church:

  • Help us to glorify Your name among men, that all that we do would point to You
  • Glorify Your name among us, that we would seek You always
  • Add this man, this child, to Your kingdom through baptism
  • Carry out Your will, not mine, in my life
  • Carry out Your will in this land and in all lands
  • Thwart the plans of evil amongst those who govern our land
  • Bring the wicked leaders of this place to repent and trust in You
  • Provide us with contentment
  • Provide us with those essential, basic needs of our bodies this day
  • Forgive us
  • Forgive me
  • Help me to forgive others
  • Spare us from temptations
  • Strengthen us against temptations
  • Deliver us from the evil one
  • Help my neighbor repent
  • Give me opportunities to share Your Word with others
  • Give me opportunities to speak the Law into the lives of the prideful
  • Give me opportunities to speak the Gospel into the lives of the downtrodden.
  • Strengthen my faith, strengthen our faith, that we may endure the fiery darts of the evil one.

I could keep going.  Healing isn’t all that there is.  This life isn’t all that there is.  Lazarus’s hope wasn’t in this life, not even after Jesus raised him out of that tomb.  We can ask for healing.  It’s good to do.  But prayer isn’t a magical act.  There’s nothing Biblical about getting a name on seventeen prayer lists, as though that’s somehow a stronger prayer or a better prayer than one man’s quiet petitions.  Our God hears.   He hears each and every one of us.  He’s promised us that.  That is in Scripture.  And so I intentionally modeled that list from the Lord’s Prayer, from what the Scriptures teach us to fervently ask for, and then I threw in a couple of extras.  Let us pray for one another.  Let us pray for our neighbors. …Pause…

As Jesus finishes the processional, arriving at the hill called Golgotha, the place for execution, the soldiers take the cross from upon His shoulders, and they spread Him out against it.  They pin Him there as one of the men takes up a hammer in his one hand and large nail in the other.  And then he begins to pound.  *Pound, pound, pound.  We can hear the hammer blows.  We can see the blood splattering out of His wrists.  We can only imagine the sharp and piercing pains.

And having finished the onslaught through His first wrist, and then the second, and then layering together His feet and driving them through, they hoist His cross upward into the air, with His body bouncing, and the pain excruciating.  And then He hangs.  The pressure of His body weight crushing against His lungs, making every breath difficult and painful. 

This is what the other two men saw that day.  The other crucify-ees.  The two thieves.  And as they saw it done to Him, so they also saw it done to them.  The anticipation of waiting for their turn.  And then the pounding, the raising, and the bouncing.  And the pain. 

And as this was beginning, they flanked Jesus with their harsh words.  They added together to the mocking He heard from so many.  They reviled Him.  They saw this Man as weak.  As One who made big claims, bold statements, but now couldn’t back them up.  Just another puny excuse.  Just another rebellious fool who thought He could take on an enemy bigger than Himself.

But the day changes one of them.  The six hours of hanging upon their crosses changes one of these two men, and I’ll double back to that later.  But for now, as the time of Jesus’ death draws nigh, one thief continued to mock, “Are you not the Christ?  Save Yourself and us!”  And this time, it’s not the Lord’s rebuke, it’s the other thief: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly…but this Man has done nothing wrong.”

The salvation you’re looking for isn’t coming.  The problem isn’t Him.  The problem isn’t His plan.  The problem is us.  The problem is right here (*points to self).  “Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.  We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”  I did this.  I did these evils.  I rebelled against God.  This is my lot, this is my judgment.  I deserved this death.  I deserve whatever suffering befalls me.  My body is failing.  And unless Christ first returns, this body will give out.  Today, tomorrow.  A week from now, a month.  A few years, a few decades.  It matters not, the time looms.  It will come.  Earthly healing only delays the inevitable.

The salvation you long for isn’t coming.  When we fix our eyes only on this life, it’s an easy tool for the devil’s arsenal.  We see brokenness around us, and we think God is failing.  We see brokenness within us and we think God isn’t helping.  We see sickness and death in places and people that we think it shouldn’t be, and we think God doesn’t care.  We see the young die, we see some suffer greatly from illness, while the wicked yet prosper, as the prophet Malachi mentioned.  And we start to doubt God.  We start to doubt His power, His faithfulness, His forgiveness, even His existence.  He can’t save Himself, let alone me!  Look at that weak God!

But that “weak” God endured the pain of hoisting up His body with His legs, against the sting of the metal and the wood, in order to utter the words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Even there.  Even then.  Even through it all.  Even knowing the depths of our sin, knowing the darkness of our hearts and the wickedness of our thoughts.  We wanted to crucify Him!  “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).  Even there.  Even then.  He prays for His enemies.  He prays for us.

And this is what that second thief saw.  Over the span of six hours that day, he watched, he looked on as the crowds mocked this Man.  As they made fun of Him, spit at Him, hurled insults at Him.  And he saw His patience.  He saw in this crucified Man something the others couldn’t.  By the work and power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word of God, spoken from the lips of Christ, he saw his King, his Lord, his Savior.  He saw the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  And it led him to cry out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.”  And while that is a fantastically sweet-sounding hymn of prayer, #767, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t singing it.

But see the contrast.  The crowds wept because they thought their salvation wasn’t coming.  The deliverance they wanted, the hope they cherished and held dearly, of a better and longer life, was lessened, was attacked.  The first thief on the cross mocked because the salvation he wanted wasn’t coming.  This God was too weak to save him, to extend his miserable days for just a few more.  But the second thief, his prayer wasn’t for a longer or better life now.  He knew his lot.  He knew he deserved everything coming to him.  And so he pleaded to fall under the same forgiveness that he saw the Christ offer to others.  That when this King would sit upon His throne in glory, He would remember this simple, unworthy thief.

So it is recorded in history that on Luther’s death bed, they found his scribbled notes either in his pocket or by his bed, of perhaps Luther’s final words, “We are beggars, this is true.”  You and I have nothing to offer this Man.  This King.  This God.  We come before Him not in pride and boasting, not with a long list of our accomplishments.  We come before Him bearing our sins, and like this second thief upon the cross, in our daily dying words, asking this Man to forgive us, too.

And He does!  It’s why He came.  It’s why He didn’t simply display His grand power upon the cross and evaporate all of His enemies with a snap of His fingers.  He came to forgive.  He came to shed His blood, to die the death that we deserve.  He took our place.  He took our pain and our grief upon Himself.  And He did it for that thief.  And He did it for those Jews and their children.  And He did it for that nail-pounding executioner.  And He did it for Pilate.  And He did it for that whip-slinging soldier.  And He’s done it for us.  By “His wounds we are healed,” (Isaiah 53:5d), “making peace by the blood of His cross,” (Colossians 1:20c).

And so Jesus looks to that second thief, and He says words that we all know so well, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  That’s our hope.  That’s what we live for.  Not for a few more days here.  Thanks be to God if He grants them!  But, we live by that promise, for that promise.  We live because He lives.  Jesus Christ has conquered even the grave.  Jesus Christ has risen from death.  Death has no more dominion over Him.  Nor over you.

Thus on this Last Sunday of the Church Year, or the Sunday of the Fulfillment, we look to the heavens above.  We look to the sky, waiting for the promise to be fulfilled.  Waiting for Christ to return.  As the angels said on the day of the Ascension, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven,” (Acts 1:11).  And it’s why Jesus said at the end of our gospel last weekend, “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” (Luke 21:28).  Advent is blue, because the heavens above, the blue skies, remind us of the return of our King, that ours is no empty hope.  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

I Have Come Down to Deliver Them

Exodus 3:1-15

Proper 27, Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

November 6, 2022

Focus:  God rescues His people!

Function:  That the hearers trust in God above all things.

Structure:  .

I Have Come Down to Deliver Them

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

“I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”  That moment, that thought, that decision by this simple shepherd changed his life forever.  For the past forty years, he’s been working as a shepherd, tending to the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro.  He aided a young lady, they got married, and he’s been working for her father ever since.

            Until that day.  As he’s keeping watch over the sheep, he sees an odd sight.  Up on Horeb, also known as Sinai, up on the mountain, Moses sees a bush on fire.  But he quickly notices, it’s not burning up.  It’s on fire, but it’s not being destroyed.  That’s odd.  That’s a really strange sight.  So, curiosity gets the better of him, and he goes to explore.

            God calls him into service that day.  To leave behind the life he knows and instead to serve the Lord.  Do what God has for him to do.  It’s a big change, but it’s God’s plan.

If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us, maybe all of us are hoping for a burning bush kind of moment in our lives.  We want a sign from God.  We want Him to reach out to us and speak to us directly and personally.  We want Him to reveal His grand masterplan for our lives. 

            So this text appeals to us.  We’ve been hearing it since we were small children in Sunday School.  There are some profound things in this text, which don’t get covered in most of those children’s lessons.  This is one of the key texts that teaches us that the Old Testament phrase “the angel of the LORD” is actually a reference to God Himself, to the pre-incarnate Christ.  God speaks from the bush, God declares His own holy and divine name, and Moses hides his eyes because he recognizes he’s talking with God, and he’s rightly terrified.

            This is also where we learn the divine name, which is used over six thousand times in the Old Testament.  God first speaks His own name, Ehweh asher Ehweh, I Am who I Am, a name which Jesus gets in trouble for using in front of the Pharisees fourteen hundred years later.  Then God gives us the name that He wanted us to use as His name forever: Yahweh, the God of Abraham, the God Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  It’s a wonderful thing, as it’s just the Hebrew words, “He is.”  God says “I AM.”  And we respond, “He is.”  To use the name He gave us for Himself is to confess our faith in Him.  And to root it in the patriarchs is to root it in the promises that God has not only made to His people, but promises that He has also kept.  Wherever you see “the LORD”  or “GOD” in all capital letters in your Bible, the Hebrew authors of Scripture actually wrote the divine name “Yahweh.”

            But neither of those profound things is quite the focus of this text.  Nor is the call of Moses.  We fantasize greatness.  So many of us grow up wanting to be pro athletes or singers.  We want to rich and famous.  We’re looking for lives filled with excitement and adventure. There’s a good reason superhero films make billions of dollars, they appeal to our fantasies. 

But if we really reflect, how many of you would want this call?  We struggle with the simple call to love our neighbor!  How many of us would actually want to go in person and stand before the leader of the world’s greatest army?  How many of us would want to walk into the throne room of a king who has perhaps displayed great paranoia in enslaving a neighbor because he assumed them to be an enemy?  How many of us would want to walk up to this man, who has shown a willingness and a twisted pleasure at enslaving and torturing other human beings?  How many of us would be willing to stand before him, and make the bold demand that he release his million slaves?

            Moses didn’t want to do it, either!  All he had wanted to do was check out the strange sight.  Hey, that bush is on fire, but it’s not being destroyed.  And then when he approaches, God takes his life and turns it upside down.  Moses wasn’t asking for it.  He didn’t want it.  Right here in this conversation he tries to weasel out of it five times!  And when he finally relents and goes, well, that first conversation with Pharaoh backfires, and Moses tries to weasel out of his call again!

            So it’s good for us to see, and to know, that Moses the servant isn’t the focus of the text.  The key verses are verses seven and eight.

Then Yahweh said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

            God’s people, the Israelites, have been harmed.  They’re hurting, they’re dying in their captivity.  They’re slaves.  And as they called out to God, He heard them, and He answered them.  The focus of the text is on the doer of the verbs.  “I know their sufferings…I have come down to deliver them…[I] bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.”  And that’s precisely what He does.  Through a series of ten plagues, God shows that He alone is God of heaven and earth.  He displays His power over the false gods of Egypt, and actually brings many Egyptians to repentance and faith.  All the while, rescuing His people, and keeping His promises.  The focus of the Book of Exodus, which Moses wrote for us, is that God saves His people.

            That is a message and a focus that never changes.  Jump forward nearly fifteen hundred years, and a little boy is born in the small town of Bethlehem.  And his parents are told to give Him the name, “Jesus.”  Why?  What did the angel say that name means? He saves.  They are to name Him Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.  “I have come down to deliver them.”

            And just as God did for the Israelites, so He has done again through His Son.  Jesus showed His authority over creation, as He calmed storms, walked on water, and changed water into wine.  He showed His victory over sin and death by healing sickness and raising the dead.  And He showed His victory over the devil, not just by casting out demons, but by dying on the cross to forgive sins, and rising again, overcoming death, to give life.

            As we jump forward again nearly two thousand years, here we are today.  The law of this text is our brokenness.  The Israelites were enslaved.  They were suffering, they were in misery.  We were enslaved.  We were enslaved to sin, to our own sinful natures and the temptations of the world and the devil.  We were suffering, despairing, downcast, and downtrodden.  Brokenness is all around us.  Poverty, violence, homelessness, depression, hopelessness, purposelessness, anxiety, infidelity, dysphoria, sexuality, pornography, disease, injury, birth defects, addiction, alcohol, drugs, divorce, fatherless homes, rebellious children.

Who here isn’t broken?  Who here isn’t hurting?  Pause.  Look around you. 

            But the message of the Exodus text hasn’t changed.  It will not change.  “I have come down to deliver them.”  By His death on the cross, the devil is defeated.  By His death on the cross your sins are forgiven.  And those two statements are blissfully married to each other.  Because hanging your sins over your head is the devil’s game.  Driving to you to despair, and to guilt, and to worry, and to anxiety is the devil’s game.  Distracting you from the God who has come down to deliver you.

            But as He said on the cross: “It is finished.”  Christ has conquered death and the devil.  He has taken away your sins.  The devil’s trick doesn’t work anymore.  It’s the beauty of the hymn, “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It,” where we Christians boldly sing:

Satan, hear this proclamation: I am baptized into Christ! Drop your ugly accusation; I am not so soon enticed.

            In another verse, we gladly say, “Sin, disturb my soul no longer…I have comfort even stronger: Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice.”  Or again, “Death you cannot end my gladness…When I die, I leave all sadness to inherit paradise!”  It’s a beautiful hymn, full of great words of comfort that point us again and again to Jesus Christ and His victory for us.

            We take our brokenness, whatever it is, and we lay down at the feet of Jesus.  You don’t have to carry them alone.  You don’t have to shoulder infidelity alone.  You don’t have to carry hopelessness alone.  You don’t have to carry them at all.  Pray.  Trust in Him.  Because God has come down to deliver His people.  He came down in Egypt, and in Bethlehem, and He has now come down regularly among us in His Word and in His sacraments where He gives us peace and deliverance from sin, death, and the devil.  And, again, just as He did before, God keeps His promises.  And He has promised you a new Promised Land, a paradise, a new heaven and a new earth.  It will be a place where we will live together with one another, body and soul united again.  Brokenness gone!  No more crying, no more pain.  No more death, no more suffering.   Your Savior has come down to deliver you.  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

The Way of God is Better than the Way of Men

Genesis 4:1-15

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

October 23, 2022

Focus:  God’s way is better than our way.

Function:  That the hearers live in the forgiveness and mercy of God.

Structure:  Jewel (same idea seen from many facets).

The Way of God is Better than the Way of Man

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

            The way of God is not the way of men.  But we often expect it to be.  We live this life our way, how we want, and then we just think that God will be okay with it.  “Love is love, afterall.”  Or, when we actually hear that God’s Word is in direct conflict with our way of life, we seek to water down His Word, to change His Word to fit us.  “Not all liars are from the devil, surely God can’t be talking about those little lies I tell to protect the feelings of other people.”  We try to remake Him in our own image.  “God is definitely a supporter of my country, my political party, my team.  He’s on my side!”

            None of these moves are faithful.  The Lord does not answer to our wills.  The Lord does not change based on our whims of desire.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  He is unchanging; He is holy and perfect and just; He is the One who created all things, even speaks all things into existence.  He bows not to man; but man bows before Him.  For He is our King.  The prophet Isaiah once declared from God to His people, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts,” (Isaiah 55:9).

            This is the point that jumped out at me again and again as I studied this Old Testament reading from Genesis 4.  The text repeatedly keeps returning to this idea: God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s ways are better than our ways.  I saw five of them in the reading, and I’ll throw in a bonus from later in the chapter, too.

            The major point most people see in this text, is that it’s the story of how Cain grows jealous and kills his brother, robbing him of his life.  The first murder in all of Scripture actually happens because of tithing. 

The two brothers brought offerings to God.  As a shepherd, a keeper of the flock, Abel brought the firstborn sheep of his flock to the Lord.  And as a worker of the ground, Cain brought some from his harvest.  And yet, as the brothers bring their offerings before Yahweh, God is pleased with Abel, but not with Cain.  It’s not that God was in the mood for a steak and some ribs instead of bread, for our Lord Jesus Christ is the very bread of life. 

The issue was with their faith.  Abel offered his firstborn.  That is, he trusted that the God who had provided this first gift of life to him, this first little lamb, would provide another, and another.  That if he sacrificed the firstborn of the first new generation of lambs, that should be the one to usher in his future flock, Abel trusted that God would provide a future flock. 

Cain didn’t share that trust.  He didn’t give firstfruits to the Lord.  And this is man’s way.  That we trust in me, myself, and I to care for me.  “I go to work.  I bring home a paycheck.  I fix my house.  I provide food for myself and for others.  I do all of this.”  And as so many live paycheck-to-paycheck, hand-to-mouth, “I can’t afford to give to God.”  Man’s way is to look at a pile of cash and worry that it isn’t enough.  To look at a food pantry that’s even partially full, and worry that it won’t last.  Man’s way is to think that we must provide our own daily bread.

And so did Cain.  And then he got mad at God for rejecting his offering, an offering of leftovers.  And so in his jealousy, he strikes down his brother.  He gets cast out from the family and sentenced as a fugitive to forever wander the earth, which would no longer provide sustenance to him.

God’s ways are better than our ways.  Trust in Him above all things.  The lesson of the tithe is actually quite simple.  God gave you 100% of everything that you have.  Even the breath we draw in this moment, the ability to get out of bed for another day, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the family we love, the roof and walls that protect us from freezing.  All of these are from Him.  They’re gifts.  Do we trust in God?  Do we trust that if we take a portion, a tithe would be 10%, and return it to God for use in His kingdom and in the sharing of the gospel, that the same God who gave us everything to begin with can use that remaining 90% to provide for us?  That the same God who took five loaves and two fish and stretched them to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children could stretch that 90% just a little to care for me?  That the same God who caused the widow’s jar of flour and jug of oil to not run out for a years-long-drought so that she could feed herself and her son (1 Kings 17), could provide also for me?

The tithe isn’t mandated for the New Testament Church, but it’s a lesson in trust, helping us grow in our trust and to see truly how God does provide our daily bread.  God’s ways are better than our ways.  We come to learn that we don’t need to worry about food and drink, and what we’ll wear, for our Heavenly Father knows that we need these things (Matthew 6).

The second angle we see in this text is that of desire.  The desires of sinners.  The temptations of sinners.  That God warned Cain that sin was crouching at the door, desiring to master over him.  The picture is of sin like a predator, a lion, waiting for Cain to step outside of his tent, so it could pounce.  Peter describes the devil in such words, a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” (1 Peter 5:8). 

And God describes our own temptations this way.  Feminism has taught even Christians to reject God’s order of creation, to believe that women and men are equal in all ways, and that any conversation of different roles is evil.  And yet, this is the very warning of God’s curse upon women in Genesis 3:16, that her “desire” would be for her husband.  It’s the same Hebrew word as it is here in 4:7, as sin “desired” to rule over Cain.  The curse of woman is that she would not be her husband’s helper, her created function, but would instead seek to rule over him, to take away his place in the family, in the home, and in the world.

God’s ways are better than our ways.  We don’t get to this point in marriage and family life in the United States without feminism.  And that’s not a boast.  No-fault divorce is sin.  Divorce rips a family apart.  As the two become one flesh!  And that so incredibly happens again every time God gives us the gift of new life in a child, that literally the two, dad and mom, become one again in this new life, this new little person.  A new man is created, half of his father, half of his mother.  And yet, in divorce, that child is then ripped in two, not just the marriage.  And so Jesus told His disciples that what God has joined together, no man can sever.

I know of no major Christian denomination in this land that approves of same-sex marriage and allows homosexual and transgendered individuals to serve as pastors, that hasn’t first rejected God’s Word and said it was okay for women to be pastors.  These things aren’t disconnected. 

But where we seek destruction, God seeks restoration.  In the midst of the Fall into sin, in the midst of Cain’s rebellion and murder, God promises life.  As Cain gave into temptation, as we give into temptation, thinking our ways are right, God promises to rescue, He promises to restore.  Christ’s death on the cross cleanses us of all our sins.  And Jesus didn’t die to create a new order, but to restore us to the way we were once created to be.  And to make us a part of His family.

Our third example: Cain’s murder of his brother stemmed from man’s way of jealousy.  From man’s way of not trusting in God to provide.  Yet, God’s way is better.  God offered Cain the opportunity to repent, to confess his sins.  And He does that also for each of us, each and every day, for His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

Fourth: Cain refused the responsibility that God gave to man in the creation, that we would care for one another, that we would care for God’s creation.  Instead, he quips, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Man’s way is to not look out for one another.  To only put ourselves first.  You’ve lived that brokenness.  You’ve watched yourself hurt others when you prioritized yourself and your needs over helping your spouse, your children, your parents, your friend.  And you know how it’s felt when they did the same thing to you.

But God’s ways are better than our ways.  He is Cain’s keeper.  And Abel’s.  And yours.  And mine.  Where Cain wanted to shed responsibility, God takes responsibility.  And He prioritizes not Himself, not His own best interests, but He cares for Cain.  He places a mark upon him so that no one would kill him.  He showed Cain mercy even in judgment.  And then, He prioritized Cain, and each of us, so highly that He stepped down from His throne, took on flesh, became a Man amongst men, and willingly died at our hands to take our sins away.  To keep us, to care for us.  He shows us mercy even in judgment (point to the cross).

A fifth angle: man’s way is to seek vengeance.  So even the blood of Abel cried out from the ground that the Lord would avenge him, would avenge his murderer.  That God would strike down Cain.

But God’s ways are better than our ways.  Consider the beautiful words of the preacher to the Hebrews (12:24), that we have been brought “to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Abel’s blood cried out for death and for more blood to be shed.  But Christ’s blood cries out for no more blood.  His blood is shed, once and for all, to take away our sins, so that our blood will no longer be required of us.  Christ’s blood speaks a better word.  Christ’s blood speaks of forgiveness rather than vengeance.

And lastly: if we kept reading today, we’d see that Cain’s great-great-great-grandson, Lamech, would take up God’s Word, that God would avenge Cain sevenfold, which is already quite difficult to imagine…how could God strike a man down seven times worse than death?  Yet Lamech, in his pride, claims that “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold,” (4:24).  Man’s way is revenge, and a thirst for retaliation, getting even, for reparation.

But God’s ways are better than our ways.  That number 77 times, or seventy times seven (49), only shows up one other time in Scripture, as Jesus describes forgiveness.  Peter boastfully asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive his brother seven times.  And among men, that’s fantastic!  How many relationships have you lost, have you destroyed because forgiveness couldn’t even be had once, or three times, let alone seven?  How often do we struggle to forgive our neighbor that second time?  They lied once.  We said we forgave.  But now, here they are, spinning another web of lies to us.  How can I forgive them again?  How can I trust them again?  But notice, to be there seven times over, means the relationship is still intact.  Peter’s offer to forgive seven times is extremely strong among men.

But God’s ways are better than our ways.  And Jesus tells Peter, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times,” (Matthew 18:21-22).  Keep on forgiving.  You won’t be able to keep track of how many times your sister has lied to you.  You won’t be able to keep track of how many times your boss has broken that promise.  You won’t be able to keep track of how many times your neighbor has taken advantage of you, caring only for himself.  And especially not when we’re trying to keep track of all of those things at the same time.  We can’t count that high.  When our neighbor repents, we are called to forgive.  For so Christ has done for us.  He has forgiven all of our sins.  And He’s not counting.

God’s ways are better than the ways of men.  And His ways instead of bringing jealousy and bloodshed and revenge, His ways bring rescue, and life, and forgiveness.  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

Cling, Pagan, Cling

Ruth 1:1-19a

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

October 9th, 2022

Focus:  God works good even in the midst of evil.

Function:  That the hearers cling to Christ our Savior.

Structure:  .

Cling, Pagan, Cling

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

            Today’s text shows us a pagan woman brought into the midst of a holy family.  But in the end, the holy family is pagan, and the pagan woman is holy.  The account of this family is tragic, not because a husband died, not because a son died, and then another.  Not because more husbands died.  But because their faith was dead.

            Elimelech and his household were Israelites, that is, part of God’s holy people, set apart from the rest of this world to be His, to be faithful, to live in the Promised Land.  This was the people of God’s promises, whom He would bless and care for, and would make into a nation whose people would be so numerous they couldn’t be counted, and from whose family tree would come the Messiah, the Savior.

            But when famine strikes the Promised Land, what happens?  How should a holy, set apart, faithful family respond to famine?  They ought to remain.  They ought to put their trust in Yahweh above all things.  It’s called the Promised Land for a reason.  Repent of their sins, ask God to provide, and trust that He would.  But instead, Elimelech takes his family and they flee across the Jordan River and then south to the pagan land of Moab, the same nation that once tried to wipe Israel from the face of the earth.  Instead of seeking refuge in Yahweh, they sought it among wicked men.

            And as time passed, Elimelech’s sons rejected the law that God gave in Deuteronomy 7:3-4, and they took wives for themselves from outside of the holy people, from this pagan land.  God’s warning is clear, it’s not just a silly rule, for the Lord knows our hearts and our openness to temptation, and that marrying a pagan means their idols come into our homes, and we begin to worship the idol, too, rejecting the Lord and His ways.  So Mahlon marries Ruth and Chilion marries Orpah.  These two pagan women are brought into the holy people of God, they’re brought near to the promises of God, and perhaps Elimelech and his sons occasionally mentioned Yahweh and His promises.

            But the worst sin of it all comes after all the men die.  The most tragic part of this account is that his wife, Naomi, tries to send the pagans home.  Her logic makes perfect sense.  She can’t provide for them.  She can’t put a roof over their heads.  She can’t feed them.  And there are no more sons to her.  Orpah and Ruth can’t simply marry another brother and be provided for.  Naomi has nothing.  “Turn back, my daughters…it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of Yahweh has gone out against me.”  If Naomi’s right, it would mean the Lord has struck down these men for their faithlessness and their rebellion against Him. 

            But after a wave of trying, and Orpah indeed leaving, Ruth clings to Naomi.  It’s the same word used in the marriage text of Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh.”  The Hebrew word is “דָּבַק,” it means to “stick/cling to.”  Such is the bond of husband and wife.  They’re stuck together.  Like that plastic wrap that clings to your hands and won’t come off.

            So strongly Ruth clings to Naomi.  This pagan girl isn’t leaving.  And yet, Naomi tries again.  And here’s the tragedy of the text: “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”  Naomi sent Orpah away.  Orpah returned to Moab, and to the worship of her false gods.  Believing that Orpah couldn’t be provided for in the Promised Land, Naomi cut Orpah off from the promises of God and sent her to damnation.  And now, she wanted Ruth to do the same.  This isn’t love!  Better to be poor and die of starvation in the arms of Christ, as Lazarus did, than to have everything and be cast into hell as the rich man was (Luke 16:19-31).  But Naomi couldn’t see past the troubles before her face.  She failed to offer these two girls the most important thing of all, the promises of God.

            Ruth’s response is lauded as one of the most faithful in all of Scripture.  A pagan, living amongst the Israelites, and the pagan is more faithful.

            We were once pagans.  All of us.  But as Ruth was brought into contact with the Lord’s family by Mahlon, so we have been brought into contact with the Lord’s family.  Some of us through baptism.  Some by the word and confession of their parents.  Some by the words spoken by a friend or a neighbor.  The stories of how the Holy Spirit worked through water and the Word to bring us all to faith are wondrous, and for this we praise the Lord!

            They taught us of the love of God.  How there is a God who is merciful.  Who gave His only Son to die for us.  Who indeed bled and died upon the cross to take away our sins.  Who then didn’t stay in the tomb, but rose again.  And has promised to raise us again.  And He is building for us a kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth where sin, death, and the devil have no power over us.  Where there are no more tears, mourning, or pain.  We have been told of a God who forgives, loves, and saves.   They put His Word in our hands, and led us into the community, into the body of Christ, where we’ve now met one another.  Praise the Lord!

            But the people who first showed us God’s promises, those who helped bring us into the Lord’s family, they’re also sinners.  They weren’t perfect, they weren’t without sin.  They didn’t always trust in the Lord to provide, nor follow His ways.  And tragically, some have even shipwrecked their faith.

Don’t be dissuaded.  Don’t let the sins of another person push you away from the sinless God.  As Ruth didn’t let Naomi push her away, don’t let the failures of other Christians, even the ones who taught you the faith, push you away.  None of us are perfect.  But He is!  You’ve been brought near.  The promises of God have been given to you.  They’ve been made yours.  Do what Ruth did.  Cling to them, cling to the holy family.  Hold tight to whatever it is that points you to Christ.  Cling to His cross.  Cling to His promises.

As we seek to bring pagans into contact with the Lord’s Word, we are but sinners.  And so the pagan coming into the Church finds themselves surrounded by Christians who are doing the same things the pagans do.

            How many of us truly trust in God to provide us with our daily bread?  Are we not much quicker to look to ourselves and the works of our own hands?  Do we not say we earned this for ourselves, we deserve this?  So the pagan sees us not trusting in the Lord. 

            They see how quickly the Church has given itself over to the sexual sins of the culture.  As divorce, which Jesus commanded us not to do, is just as normal among us as it is among the pagans.  Our use of pornography.  Our cohabitation before marriage.  Our quick and ready acceptance of birth control and the idea that children aren’t a gift from God, or at the least, we seek to avoid the gift.  That gave way to an acceptance of abortion among many.  We don’t see marriage as holy.  We don’t leave the marriage bed undefiled.  It looks no different among us than among the pagans. 

            And in this, there’s tragedy.  We tell the pagan who steps foot into the house of God, who sits among the family of the Lord, that their idols are okay.  That they don’t need to repent of the things that they’ve done.  They can keep their sins, and still be okay with God.  We may’ve been struck horribly by Naomi’s words, but we say them, too.  We live them, too.

            If Naomi was right, if the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion were truly God’s judgment against their sins, then the Lord spared Naomi that she might learn from the judgment and repent.  God didn’t spare Naomi because she deserved it.  He spared her by His choice, by His mercy.  And she would go on to be a step-great-great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David, whose line would give us the Messiah. 

            And God took Ruth the Moabitess, a pagan who worshipped idols, and He drew her near to Himself, He brought her into His family and into His kingdom.  Not because she deserved it, but by His choice, by His mercy.  And Ruth would become the great-grandmother of King David.  She may not have entered the kingdom by her own merit, but once she was in, once she had been brought near to the kingdom of God, she clung to it.  She wouldn’t let Naomi sever her from the promises of God.

            So the Lord worked through the evil and sins of His own people for the good of His kingdom.  As they failed to trust in Him above all things, wandered outside of the Promised Land, the Lord worked through them, to bring a new person into His family.

            Such is one of His promises, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” – Romans 8:28.  The pagan world looks upon us and easily sees that we don’t live up to what God expects.  And yet, He still works through sinners to bring about good in His kingdom.

            God uses those hard times in our lives to teach us to trust in Him.  The Lord works through our sexual sins and still gives this creation the gift of new life.  And when we push back, aborting that life, the Lord keeps providing more children.  And some of these, like you and me, are then brought near by the work of the Spirit, brought near His family, brought into His family.

            God uses one sinner to provide for another.  Food for a community and a family.  The pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins for all.  And He uses us to bear the good news to the pagans.  We’re not perfect at it.  We do fall short.  But He keeps on working through His Church, nonetheless.  For once, we were all pagans, but now, we have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13). 

He has given Himself for you.  His promises are now yours.  And you are now His.  Rejoice in this good news.  And as the darkness and evils of this world swirl around you, cling to Christ.  Cling to His promises. 

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

Men of Good Standing

1 Timothy 3:1-13

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 25, 2022

Focus:  God gives us His Word and Sacraments.

Function:  That the hearers treasure the gifts of God always.

Structure:  .

Men of Good Standing

            Dear brother and sisters in Christ, it’s not a secret.  The Church is shrinking.  In the decade from 2009 through 2019, the percentage of adults in this land who claimed to be Christian fell from 77% to 65%.  Estimates for 2021 are about 63%.  Let me shift the terminology.  That’s 36 million people, roughly.  In a decade.  Every major church body is declining, except two: the Amish, whom we can call brothers and sisters in Christ, and Muslims, whom we can’t.  Over the past few generations, and ramping up in the last thirty years, the LCMS has joined the bandwagon of trying to do whatever it takes to get people in the pews.  “We have to be more creative!”  “We have to change how we worship!”  “We have to change and soften on some of the things that we teach!  We have to make the people like us!”

            Notice, though, where has that gotten us?  In the last five years alone, LCMS membership has fallen by 10%.  We’ve gone from a church body of 2 million, to now 1.8 million.  And we’ve closed over 200 churches, with 5,914 remaining according to last year’s annual report from Synod.  As a church worker, it feels like we’re always talking about how to stop the bleeding.

            But, if we stop and look around us, is it just the Church that’s declining?  The railroads, police departments, and hospitals, no one can find enough people to work.  Just about every company is treating their employees like a stress ball, squeezing them and squeezing them, and forgetting that we’re actually people.  We can’t just be squeezed forever: we pop.  The point comes when we break and fall.  Companies are crumbling, businesses going under.  The shipping crisis continues.  Prices are climbing, families that were already struggling to make ends meet, now have it even worse.

The government of this land is increasingly becoming more and more polarized, and combined with the media outlets, teaching the people to hate those around them, to see one another as the enemy and the oppressor.  Violence in our streets, theft in our neighborhoods, drug use, all on the rise.

The point comes in every nation, in every kingdom of this world, when it falls.  When it burns.  I don’t know how close America’s time is.  But, it doesn’t look good.  Those who lead aren’t aiming for unity, but more division.  And the people don’t want reconciliation; they want reparation and revenge.  None of this bodes well.

The ship is sinking.  And Christ promised it would.  Even if America should last until the day of His return, on that day, He personally would crush this nation, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:24, “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.”  Every authority and every power.  No exception.  There is no golden and holy nation that will be spared from God’s judgment.  Let go.  Unhook.  Detach.  For the sailor who clings to his ship as it sinks, sinks with it.

But we are not of this world.  This is not our kingdom.  We have a different anchor. *Point to cross.  Seize it, grab hold.  The Lord’s promises never falter!

What does any of this have to do with our epistle reading?  I’m inviting you to consider this question: what are we training our sons for?  There are some things we’re really good at teaching them.  We’re really good at teaching our sons how to make money.  We live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world.  Even our poor are considered rich on the global scale.  We pour endless hours into making sure they can achieve success, have great careers, and climb those corporate ladders. 

We also train them how to play with a ball.  Whether it’s an elongated pigskin, a round piece of rubber, a ball of cotton with a cork inside, or a tiny ball with lots of dimples.  They get good at hitting them, kicking them, and stopping them.  And, arguably, some of our sons spend more time here than anywhere else.

Ladies, I’m going to quiz you a couple of times today.  Can I ask right now, for a show of hands, how many of you married ladies truly care and think it’s important that your husband can kick or dunk a ball into a net?  Young men, boys, look around. 

Let me try another.  Ladies, please listen to a list of traits.  That a man would be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well.”  Again, sisters in Christ, with a show of hands, how many of you would like to be married a man like that?  Young men, boys, look around.

It’s past time to remember why we’re here.  Christ our Lord once said that He came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.  We are here, as Christ’s people, to serve, to love our neighbor.  Parents, pull the plug.  Video games aren’t training your sons in loving their neighbor.  Sports aren’t training your sons to serve their neighbor.  It’s not that video games or sports are bad, evil, sinful things.  They’re meant for fun.  And fun has a place, but too often we’ve lost sight of that place, as we’ve joined America in making fun the purpose of life.  And training our sons for success has just been teaching them to lust after money and worry about it all the time, as stress levels seem to be ever climbing.

If America fell tonight, with a great disaster, or the horrors of another civil war, what would we rebuild?  What things would be necessary to this community for survival?  What would your neighbor need?  Teach your sons to do those things.  Teach them how to use their hands to build.  Teach them how to fix things, even if it means they have to take them apart first.  Teach them how to come alongside their neighbor, whether they know each other or not, and serve together with a common goal and purpose.  Teach them how to grow food, or how to plan to feed their family.  Teach them how to lead and love not by boasting, but by serving and sacrificing.  Too often we’ve been told of our boys that “idol hands are the devil’s workshop.”  So we filled their lives with idle things.  Let’s fill their hands with good works that build up their neighbor.  And lead them by example, teaching them how to be faithful husbands and fathers.

Again, what does this have to do with our epistle, with Paul’s qualifications for pastors?  What are we training our sons to do?  As our sisters showed us, this list isn’t just for pastors.  Men, may we all aspire to the things on this list.  Such would be good men.

Let’s return to the beginning, to the shrinking Church in this land.  Yes, she’s indeed shrinking.  And honestly, at least in the immediate future, she’ll likely keep shrinking.  But Christ has promised us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His bride the Church.  No matter what Satan and his demonic minions plot, Christ will preserve a faithful remnant.  He will provide for His people.  And His promises to us can’t be destroyed.  Satan can’t take them away from us.

So, what would we rebuild?  What do we need to survive?  The local congregation, this family, this community, is arguably the most important thing of all.  One another.  The body of Christ.  We are called by God to gather, to gather together to hear His Word, to receive His gifts, and to encourage and build up one another.  One of the best Lutheran theologians of the last century phrased it this way:

“Because it is the will and order of God that Christians who dwell in one locality should not merely read God’s Word privately, but also fellowship with one another, hear God’s Word publicly preached, to that end establish the public ministry among themselves, and after its establishment make use of it.” – Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, vol. iii, pg. 421.

This place is formed, St. Matthew is here, for the sole purpose that you would know where to turn at any given moment for Christ’s gifts.  St. Matthew Lutheran Church was established in this community so that faithful Word and Sacrament ministry would always be available to this community.  And then, once the congregation is established, you call a pastor to steward, to manage those gifts of God and give them to you again and again, week in and week out, day after day. 

It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It doesn’t even need to happen in a building.  Many of the early Christians living in and around Rome gathered for worship in the catacombs beneath the city, because the superstitious Romans didn’t want to go near the dead.  Now, the benefit to having a building is that you know where to go physically.  But if we lost this, if persecution comes and takes this away from us, we’d still be the Church, we’d still be the body of Christ, and His gifts would still be present among us.

So, the devil is holding your sins against you?  You know that you can call upon your pastor to hear the word of Christ’s forgiveness for you.  That Satan’s accusation has no bearing over you, because Christ has already redeemed you, taken your sins upon Himself on the cross.  Is the world besieging you, attacking you and mocking your faith?  You know where you can go to hear of God’s glory, of His dominion, and of His mercy: right here, as the Word of God is proclaimed to you as often as you want to hear it; that Christ has been raised from the dead.  And that because He lives, you live, forevermore.  And as you’re feeling exhausted again from all the temptations that have assaulted you throughout this week, you know where to come to find strength for the day, as Christ’s body and blood feeds and nourishes you more than anything in this world.

That’s why the Church is here: to be an ark of God’s promises in this community.  And that’s why I’m here: to be sure that the promises are shared with you again and again, as often as you need to hear them.

A text on the qualifications of pastors.  This could’ve easily been a sermon about me, “Look, can’t you see how special the Bible says that I am!”  That’s not what this is about.  I’m not special.  Pastors wear albs to cover our body, so that what we wear and how we carry ourselves isn’t a distraction to your hearing and your receiving.  We wear stoles and chasubles not for their shiny appearance, or to be holier than thou, but to match the furniture.  To blend in.  To disappear up here amongst the holy things of God.  Again, so you don’t see me, but that you can freely focus on Christ instead.

I’m not above reproach.  I know it.  I’m a sinner, and I’m plagued by my own thoughts.  This list of qualifications beats me over the head like a hammer pounding a nail.  I’m not good enough; I don’t live up to this.  But I am a baptized child of God.  I am a son of the King.  And in His mercy, those same promises that exist in this place for you, are here for me, too.  I’m forgiven.  I’m strengthened.  I’m fed.  I’m comforted, in Christ.  It’s not about the man.  It’s about the office that Christ has given and the gifts He gives through that office.

If we want to be able to continue to offer these things to our community, out of love for one another and love for our neighbor, we must train up our sons.  We must give them a love for Scripture, a hunger and thirst for His righteousness, and a humble heart that leans not on its own understanding, but seeks the Lord above all things.  On a related note, if we want to keep singing, we also need to train up organists for the next generations.

Paul says that by service to the church, these men “gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.”  That’s not to say that pastors have earned God’s favor, or that they can somehow stand before Christ because of their own holiness.  The good standing is in the community, in the family.  That just as a wife cherishes a faithful husband, and a child adores a faithful father, so the body of Christ in this place loves a faithful pastor.  I pray that the Lord would give you such men, now, and always.  And through that service, pastors then gain confidence in faith.  Why?  Because as I build you up and point you to Christ, you are strengthened in your faith, and you can then turn around and build me up and point me to Christ, strengthening me in my faith.  Iron sharpening iron.  The mutual encouragement of the brethren.  And we’ll keep doing it until Christ returns and calls us home.  Amen!  Come Lord Jesus.

Wandering Off and Returning Home

Luke 15:1-10

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 11, 2022

Focus:  God welcomes sinners home and rejoices over us when we repent.

Function:  That the hearers repent and come to the table.

Structure:  .

Wandering Off and Returning Home

            Jesus continued His journey, with His face set to Jerusalem where He was going to die, to die a horrid death upon the cross, and to die that death for you and for me.  For all people.  To forgive the sins of the world.  But on the way, He kept stopping to talk to sinners.  He kept entering their homes and eating together with them.

            The religious leaders of Judaism of the day thought Jesus was acting disgracefully.  “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”  Tax collectors and sinners, Luke tells us.  Notice the phrasing.  Hear their thoughts roll off their tongues.  “Here’s this group over here, the tax collectors, fellow Jews who’ve betrayed us to serve the empire.  They take our hard-earned profits and they send them off to support those barbarians in Rome.  Traitors, all of them!”

            “And then over there, look at those sinners.  So pathetic.  They can’t keep the law of God.  They don’t care about the things of God.  They just go along with the world loving the things the world loves.”

            Notice who isn’t included.  Tax collectors and sinners do not refer, in their mind, to the Pharisees and the scribes as they grumble against these other people.  “Sinners are over there!  Not right here (point to self).”

            Having heard their grumbling, Jesus launches into a series of four parables, stories meant to teach and illustrate His point.  Three of them, He speaks directly to the Pharisees: the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Lost Son/Prodigal Son.  The final parable of the set, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, Jesus aims at His own disciples, but well within the hearing of the Pharisees.  We have the first two before us today.  We had the third one earlier this year on the fourth Sunday in Lent.  And the fourth parable will be our reading next weekend.

            But let’s walk through them.  What is Jesus saying?  What’s He seeking to teach the Pharisees and the scribes, and by extension all the other people within earshot, and now us?

            The Parable of the Lost Sheep is fairly straightforward.  If you had a hundred sheep, and one of them wandered off, what would you do?  Let’s take the difficulty out of the parable, and imagine there are a couple of other shepherds present with the flock.  You would go and find your lost sheep.  It’s really the same thing Jesus was explaining in Luke 14:5 when people were getting upset with Him for healing on the Sabbath: “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?”  You would help your son.  You would rescue your ox.  You would go and find your sheep.  You would seek to help those who need to be helped.

            Within the context, the Pharisees are mad at Jesus for spending time with these tax collectors and sinners.  But these are the lost sheep.  They’re the ones who wandered away from God.  And in His love for them He has gone aside from His journey, from His normal pasture, to go and find them, to go into their homes and make Himself known to them.  And then, many of them follow Him back to the flock, to His pasture.  Matthew, or Levi, the Jewish traitor who stole taxes from his own people to feed the Roman coffers, Jesus went to him, and even dined in his home.  And this little lamb, this Matthew, has followed Him ever since.

            The Parable of the Lost Coin really isn’t much different.  It may even be more straightforward.  Jesus envisions a woman with ten silver coins.  The word there is the Greek word “drachma” which is the Greek equivalent of the Roman denarius, a day’s wage.  She has ten days’ worth of wages stored in her home.  This is actually, for the time, quite unusual.  Like most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, most people in the ancient world did, also.  You would earn your day’s wage, getting paid at the end of the shift, and you’d take it to the market and buy what was needed to care for your family the next day. 

            And she loses a drachma, a coin, a day’s pay.  She loses the means by which to provide for herself for a day.  And she panics.  And she panic-cleans her home.  How many of you have done the same thing?  How many of us have lost something, and so as we try to find it, we start frantically cleaning everything, hoping it turns up?  In her case, she takes a broom and sweeps her dirt floor, moving around that upper layer of dirt upon the hardened earth until sure enough, there it is.  She’s found it.  And she rejoices!  Now, if you’ve done this, and you’re not the only one living in the home, what’s the first thing we do?  We shout out loud, “I found it!”  Again, the sinners and tax collectors represent the lost coin.  Jesus has diligently been sweeping the earth in search of them.

            Today’s reading ended there, but let’s jump back to our Lenten gospel reading from this spring, as Jesus followed both of these parables with another, the Parable of the Lost Son.  In it, we have a man with two sons.  And at one point, the youngest son decides he’s had enough.  He’s done.  He wants nothing to do with this house, this family, this land.  He just wants out.  And so he goes to his father, and wishes that he’d drop dead.  That’s the extent of it, right?  You don’t inherit your father’s wealth until your father dies.  But he wants his share of it now.  “Drop dead dad, give me what’s mine.”  It’s a really awful look for him.

            Surprisingly in the story, the dad does it.  He gives what is his to his son.  And the boy moves away from home, to a far away country, where he proceeds to blow through his inheritance in luxurious living.  And when he runs broke, and hard times hit, he sinks so low that he takes a job feeding pigs, which to the Jewish people were unclean animals, making him unclean, meaning he can have no part in the house of God or the worship life of God’s people.  He’s outside.  He’s been removed. 

            And as he wallows in the muck, staring into the slop sitting in the pigs’ feeding trough, he finds himself wanting to eat even the slop.  But then he recognizes the foolishness of his situation.  That even the servants in his father’s house are well-cared for.  They’re fed, and clothed, and housed.  And he makes up his mind to return home and ask to be but a servant in his father’s house.  He repents, and humbly.

            But when he draws near, his father runs out to greet him.  And as he begins this speech that he has rehearsed again and again along the journey, dad doesn’t care.  He doesn’t let him finish.  He embraces him.  He calls his servant to bring out the best robe and a family ring, which may well have bore the father’s seal.  He dresses his son.  He slaughters the fattened calf and throws a celebration because his son has been found.  Once again, the lost one of the parable is that tax collector, that sinner, against whom the Pharisees and scribes grumbled.

            And so the parable continued.  Where was the older brother?  Out in the field, caring for his father’s business, doing what he should.  And when he hears the celebration, he asks a servant what all the commotion is about.  And the servant simply tells him, that his brother has come home, and dad is throwing a feast.  The older brother, though, doesn’t go to the feast.  He sits outside in the muck and he wallows.  He runs through his mind how unfair it is.  How he was faithful.  How he stayed.  How he took on extra work.  How some of his inheritance was now being wasted on his ungrateful little brother.

            The father comes out to greet him.  The father listens to the grievances of his hardened heart.  And dad replies, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found,” – Luke 15:31b-32. And Jesus stops.  He ends the story right there, and turns to His disciples and begins another parable.

            Jesus left the door open.  The Pharisees and the scribes are the older brother.  A sinner has repented.  God the Father who created that sinner, is rejoicing, that they’ve been found.  God and all of the angels of heaven are rejoicing that that sinner repented.  He has come home.  She has come home.  You have come home. 

            But the Pharisees and scribes sit outside the house grumbling, uacpset that the Father is embracing and celebrating the repentance of these lost sons. 

Jesus tells these three parables to teach the Pharisees two main points.  First, the sinners they’re looking down on are His children, too.  He made them.  He loves them.  And He has gone to them in order to restore what was lost.  To bring them back to Himself.  But secondly, notice how abruptly the Parable of the Lost Son ends.  Jesus doesn’t slam the door shut on them.  He leaves the door open for the Pharisees and scribes, those older brothers, to recognize the error of their hardened hearts, to repent, and to come inside where the feast is already set, and join in the celebration.  And if they do, let’s have another round of rejoicing!

Which one are we?  Every person starts out as the lost sheep, the lost coin, the rebellious son.  We all start in this world as sinners, rebelling against God and His good creation.  Seeking to live this life for ourselves, and not another.  But in the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, He came out to us along the way.  In the Christmas story of a Baby born of a virgin, He came to find us.  In the Holy Week story of a King being lifted up, bleeding and dying, He came to bear us upon His own shoulders, and to bring us back to the flock, to good pasture.

We’re still sinners, each of us.  And as long as we remain in this world, temptations come.  The parables serve to warn us not to harden our hearts as the Pharisees and the scribes did.  They were part of the house, part of the family.  But their hardness of heart removed them, cast them out.  Our faith can be destroyed by our pride.  Consider how this temptation hits you.  Ponder it as you leave today, as you drive the roads, seeing the homeless and the beggars on the street corners, the “not-so-nice” parts of town, watching the cars go by that are falling apart.  Then as you eat your lunch at the restaurant, and you watch the family fighting over their meal at the table next to you, or you see the person who looks so drastically different from you walking by, or the couple holding hands that you know shouldn’t be.  How do we see them?  Do we turn these peoples into separate groups?  Do we, in our pride of heart, give in to the temptation to see them as different than ourselves, less than ourselves?  Tax collectors and sinners.  Such is the devil’s work, to harden our hearts against others whom God has created.

Instead, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, which Jesus now speaks to His disciples, invites us to learn that we are to use our unrighteous wealth, or mammon, to make friends with others, that one day, they can welcome you into the eternal dwelling.  The contrast with these first three parables really jumps out.  All of you who are in the family, instead of looking around and seeing how broken and unworthy this other person is, and grumbling about them, use the things God has entrusted to you to form a relationship with them, through which you can one day even share Christ with them.  For that’s how they’d be able to welcome us into the eternal dwelling.  Because they heard of Christ through you, and that unrighteous stuff that will only perish anyway.  For we were once the dishonest manager.  We were failing to do the Master’s business.  But, now, now we’ve repented, now we’ve been welcomed home.  And there’s work yet to do.  These other people, they need what we have.  They need to hear of the love of Christ, that there is a God and King who has come seeking them, who has done everything to save them, as we know He has done also for us. 

Jesus, by His death and resurrection, has opened the door to all.  And the Father has prepared a feast.  Seeing as how we’ve all repented together this day, He has embraced us with His forgiveness and placed us at a spot at His table.  Enjoy the celebration together this day, and then go out, and invite others to come to the table, too, and we’ll rejoice again. 

What Can Man Do to Me?

Hebrews 13:1-17

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

August 28, 2022

Focus:  God is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Function:  That the hearers seek Christ and His cross, not money and food.

Structure:  .

What Can Man Do to Me?

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

            If you can remember back to the days when people actually wrote letters to each other, students on their summer breaks from school would sleep in in the morning, and when they finally awoke, wandering groggily into the kitchen to grab some food, they would find a note from Dad or Mom.  And it would say a few things, some niceties, before closing with a list.  Do this, that, and the other thing.  Be sure to clean your room, take out the garbage, empty the dishwasher.  Love, Mom. 

            It’s actually pretty common in the New Testament epistles.  In our case, the preacher of this sermon to the Hebrews has gotten through the meat of his delivery, driven home his goals for the Church, and now he wraps up with a list of things to do, to be faithful.  Let’s run through it, and see how we’re doing:

  • “Let brotherly love continue.” – Maybe?  Although we’re pretty confused by the word “love” these days.  And, if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s easier to be angry and to get revenge than it is to serve and to forgive.
  • “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” – Epic fail.  Since the advent of the air conditioner and the garage door opener, “click,” pull out the car in the morning, “click” and drive off to work; come home, “click” to enter the garage, and “click” to shut it.  We don’t even know our neighbors anymore.  We don’t host them, invite them into our homes, feed them, serve them.  Let alone a stranger, someone we don’t know.  They might harm us!
  • “Remember those who are in prison” – Many of us don’t even know where the prisons are, or who’s in them.  Out of sight, out of mind.
  • “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” – Cohabitation doesn’t honor marriage.  Pre-nuptial agreements don’t honor marriage.  Divorce never honors marriage.  An emperor, or nine of them, deciding that they can change marriage into something new doesn’t honor marriage. 
  • “Let the marriage bed be undefiled.” – 75% of couples cohabit before marriage, many never making it there.  One-night stands.  Affairs.  I have to keep this list short because there are children present.
  • “Keep your life free from love of money.” – From the time our children can walk, we’re already planning out what career they’ll have, or at the least, worrying ourselves over their academic success so they can go to college and get a good career.  I must have a good income, so that I can…..
  • “Be content with what you have.” – Capitalism preys on our discontentment.  Every ad you see.  If they can’t convince you that what you have isn’t good enough, why would you ever buy their gadget?  And if enough people don’t buy it, their company goes out of business.  I know, my truck isn’t pretty.  Those 2023’s coming out sure look nice, don’t they?  But I’ve only got 68,000 on my truck.  If I take good care of it, it could run another twenty years easy.

            I could preach a sermon on any of those.  The unknown preacher’s list could be turned into a dozen sermons, which probably would all have their own lists for us to consider.  But let’s stick to the overview.  How are we doing at this list?  We’re not actually looking too good, are we?

            Skipping ahead a little, this preacher calls us to think differently than this world.  He says, “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God.  Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  Let’s put that in its context.  Hebrews is written some time shortly before 70 AD, as it reads as though the Jerusalem temple still stands and functions among the Jews.  The Roman emperor Nero began his persecution of Christians in 64 AD, likely before this letter, and the Jews had persecuted Christians since Jesus walked this earth.  So, leaders of the Church who shared the Word of God in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s AD…that would be the apostles, among others.  And what was the outcome of their way of life?

  • Stephen was stoned to death for preaching of Christ around 35 or 36 AD.
  • James, brother of John, is killed by order of Herod Agrippa I with the sword in 44.
  • Philip is crucified in 54. 
  • Matthew is slain with halberd in 60.
  • Andrew was crucified in 60.
  • James, the brother of Jesus, stoned, and then clubbed to death in 62.
  • Peter was crucified upside down by Nero in 67 or 68 AD.
  • Paul, that same year, beheaded by the sword under Nero’s rage.

And the preacher says, “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  He couldn’t possibly be saying, “go and do likewise,” could he?  Consider their outcome.  They all died for their faith, perished on account of the Word of Jesus, the good news of salvation.  They believed in Him, they knew that they would be raised even from death.  And by that faith, they endured. 

This is what the Apostle Paul talks about in one of his more famous phrases.  “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” – 2 Corinthians 4:7.  The treasure is Jesus, faith, life, hope, salvation, forgiveness, all of that gospel that He gives to us.  And the jar of clay is this flesh.  We have Christ!  And Paul goes on for the next several verses to talk about the kinds of afflictions that the leaders of the Church have endured.  But he comes to his point in verses 13 and 14,

13 Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, 14 knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence.

            We’re Christians.  This jar of clay is filled with Christ.  If I were to take a clay pot, fill it with water, and then take a baseball bat and smash it, that water would go everywhere.  Paul’s point is this: let the world smash.  For if they do, the gospel spreads.  If they do, the forgiveness and love of Jesus will be heard by many others.  And, should they break this jar of clay, He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us, also.  The Christian cannot be killed.  Our life cannot be snuffed out.  For the death of this jar of clay is only temporary.  God can, God will, raise it again.

            So the unknown preacher preaches.  “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”  Live not for the career, the big fancy home, the best gadgets and gizmos.  Live in Christ.  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  Jesus suffered and died for us, and for all people.  We’re not above our Master.  Let us suffer with Him.

            “Do not be led away by diverse and strange new teachings.”  Those can come in all kinds of forms.  One they dealt with was that the people of their day sought strength from food, and not just ordinary, daily support.  The Jews continued to believe that if they followed the Old Testament dietary laws, they could earn God’s favor.  And there were pagans who believed that by consuming the blood of a beast, that somehow that creature’s strength became yours.  Neither of these practices were true, there was no such benefit from either.  And we still see these things today: you’ll live longer if you go vegan; you can avoid certain cancers if you eat organic; the carnivore diet will reduce your inflammation.  The list of promises goes on and on.  But all of them end in the same result.  None of them can avoid the grave.  For “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

            So, we gain our strength not from food, but from grace.  And the preacher then contrasts that with their day.  “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.”  In Jerusalem, there was an altar at the temple.  And there, for forgiveness, you would bring an animal to offer as a sacrifice.  The priest would kill it, and then burn much of it on the altar.  There were certain parts that the priests would keep, as their portion from God, for them to eat.  Even if you brought the animal, you couldn’t eat that meat.  You had no right.

            But contrast it with the people he’s writing to!  We have an altar (point to the Lord’s Table and Supper), which those who serve the tent, that is, in the 60’s AD, those who still worship at the temple, still seek the old sacrifices because they don’t believe Jesus was God who forgave all their sins, they have no right to eat at this altar.  We have a meal, the body and blood of Christ, given for us, a meal of grace, forgiveness and life, that strengthens us every time we partake of it.  For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

            A part of your sacrifice would also be carried outside the camp to burn.  There were other Old Testament laws about taking the unclean things outside of the camp.  And here the preacher points to the fact that Jesus was taken outside of the camp.  For the Romans, crucifixion was about more than just an execution, just a way to get rid of someone.  The main emphasis of crucifixion was the humiliation.  The public shame.  And not just of the one being crucified, but for his family, and for those who knew him.  They would strip the body bare, and take the man outside of the city, and, there, by city gates, they would mount him on a cross.  Anyone coming to that city, and anyone leaving that city, saw him, hanging there, naked.  And a sign usually indicated who he was and what he’d done.  The shame was greatly effective at preventing future crimes.

            So they took Jesus outside the camp.  Unclean, as He bore on His shoulders all the sins of the world.  And a sacrifice, to grant forgiveness to the people of God.  Consider the outcome of His way of life and imitate His faith.  The preacher says, “Therefore let us go to Him outside the camp and bear the reproach He endured.”  He doesn’t say, “Let us then build big things and live in comfort and luxury, loved by the world.”  Let us go to Him, outside the camp.  Outside the world.  Away from the world.  Putting behind us the things that the world loves and clings to.  And let us bear the reproach He endured.  The spitting, the mocking, the beating, the arrest, the shame, the death.

            “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”  This will burn.  All of this will go away.  Not one stone will be left upon another.  Don’t cling to the world as she burns.  Don’t seek to hold fast to the unrighteous stuff that is perishing.  This is not our home.  It hasn’t been for any of us at any point in our lives.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Let us seek the city that He prepares for us in Paradise, to be with Him, strengthened by His grace, forevermore.

            Our preacher calls us to offer regular sacrifices, not of animal flesh, or the fruits of our harvests, but the fruits of our lips.  Our regular sacrifices are our praise.  As we call upon His name in every trouble, praying, praising, and giving thanks.  And in doing so, we also speak His name to others, sharing the gospel that we’ve been given.  Love God, love your neighbor.  “For such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

            Let me close with my favorite verse of the text, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”  It’s such a profound phrase.  Consider it again as we are but jars of clay.  If the world hates me, if the world refuses to open their doors to me, if the world locks me in prison and forgets about me, if the world mistreats me for the sake of Christ’s name, if the world dishonors my marriage, if the world takes my bride from me, if the world strips away all the money and possessions that I have, Lord, may I be content.  Since God is my helper, since God is with me, what can man do to me?  For man does not live on bread alone.   Should the world break this jar of clay, Christ will raise it immortal, imperishable, glorious, and without sin.  And so I have nothing to fear in this world.  They can’t harm me.

            This was true for Paul, and Peter, and James, and Andrew, and Matthew, and Philip, and James, and Stephen.  It’s true for me, and it’s true for you.  For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

            Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

The Narrow Door of Paradise

Luke 13:22-30

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

August 21, 2022

Focus:  God calls His people.

Function:  That the hearers recline at table in the kingdom of God.

Structure:  .

The Narrow Door of Paradise

            Consider with me one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, even called an apostle in Luke 6:13 – Judas Iscariot.  We actually know very little about him.  His father’s name was Simon.  His name, Iscariot, is Hebrew for “man of Kerioth,” a city roughly twenty miles south of Bethlehem.  And he betrayed Jesus with a kiss for thirty pieces of silver.

            And betrayal implies closeness.  Judas could betray Jesus because he was with Him, he’d met Him.  He actually knew Jesus in the flesh.  For three years.  They traveled the land of Judea together.  Together, they shared cramped quarters or slept under the stars.  Together they ate and drank.  Together they worked, taught, healed, and proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.

            Arguably, Judas’s resume looks better than any of ours.  He was even responsible for carrying the money bag for Jesus and the other disciples.  And yet, despite such a closeness, Judas abandoned his faith.  Judas doesn’t make it.

            Today’s gospel reading brings that warning directly home to each of us.  That it’s possible to once share in the things of God, and yet not enter Paradise.  I can’t give you the context for the conversation, at least not as closely as I’d like.  We don’t even know who asked this question or why.  It’s a downer of a question to begin with, almost as though they’d just walked through the rough part of a town, observing open sins on the streets, and someone turned to Jesus despairing of all this evil, and asked, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  It’s also possible the question came from a position of pride, like that of the Pharisees.  “Surely, I’m in, but what about all these other people?  Lord, will those who are saved be few?” 

            The Holy Spirit didn’t consider it worth our knowing, as He didn’t inspire Luke to tell us.  Let us instead then, focus on what He did give us, the very words of our Master Jesus Christ.

            We learn from Jesus that the door to Paradise is narrow.  Slender, short, small.  We’ve reached that point of the year again where there are crowds, hordes of people seeking to enter Arrowhead Stadium, pushing and shoving their way together through those gates.  That won’t be the scene on the Last Day.  There will be few seeking to enter by the narrow door, while the rest are driven away to the pits of Hell.

            Our gospel today isn’t a parable, some kind of a story Jesus makes up to teach a particular point or lesson to His followers.  No, this text is a depiction of the Day of Judgment.  That the Master of the house, Jesus Himself, will have shut the doors to Paradise, so that no more may enter it.  It’s like the account of the ark in the Old Testament.  As long as Noah was building it, the ark was open.  Repentance was possible.  People could hear the judgment, and also the good news of salvation through that water, from the lips of Noah.  But they didn’t.  They could care less as they went about their lives as usual.  That is, until Yahweh shut the door of the ark.  Then as the rains begin to fall, and the waters to pile up, we can imagine how many may banged on the walls of that boat before they finally drowned.

            So on the Last Day, Jesus will gather His people, His bride, the Church, to Himself in His house, and He’ll shut the door.  At that point, it’s final.  No one else can come in, try as they may.  Once they see the horrors of Hell that await them, no amount of banging on the narrow door will matter.  No excuses, no self-justifications, it will be final.

            Jesus admits that they’ll try anyway.  Those banging on the door, wanting at this point desperately to avoid their own destruction, will declare, “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.”  Essentially, they make the case that they know Jesus.  They’ve listened to Him, even dined with Him.  Why is He shutting the door to them?

            Just like Judas, there will be many cast aside on the Day of Judgment who dined with Jesus, who heard Him preach.  He entered the homes of sinners and tax collectors and Pharisees alike.  He healed all sorts of people, and preached in every town and village along the way.  But for many, this became a false confidence: “I’ve met the Messiah, so I’m good!”  Yet, in reality, they could care less about faith and Jesus.  They just went about their lives as usual.

            This text from Jesus is meant to be a warning to us.  Our Hebrews’ epistle says that we will not escape the judgment if we reject Him, Jesus, who warns us from heaven.  Let’s review for a moment: how are we saved?  Pause.  By grace, through faith.  It’s entirely a gift.  Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Forgiveness, life, and salvation are gifts of Jesus that we receive by faith.  Not a work.  We can’t earn them.  Jesus has already earned them, paid for them, by His blood shed upon the cross.  Now He simply seeks to give them to you.

            But the gifts of Jesus aren’t forced upon us.  They aren’t irrefusable.  If you’d rather have your life in this world, to just go about life as usual, Jesus will let you.  But you’ll find the narrow door shut to you on the Last Day.

Essentially, this is a warning against lawlessness, which has been around since Jesus ascended into heaven.  It’s the idea that once you have Jesus, the law doesn’t matter anymore.  That, as a Christian, you’re free.  You can live however you want, do whatever you want, and you’ll be fine.  One way we see this today is with the idea of doctrine, which just means teaching.  So many say that the doctrines of the Church don’t matter, we’re all Christians, and should just leave it at that.  To say otherwise or tell someone they’re wrong is unloving.  But that mindset has now advanced to the point where many say that a loving God wouldn’t send anyone to Hell, so all people on this earth will be saved, whether they believed in Jesus or not.

            But there’s a more dangerous lie that tempts us.  “Jesus accepts and loves me just the way I am” is a deadly saying rapidly making its way through the Church and destroying faith in its wake.  People want to go about their lives as usual.  “You can’t look at my life and declare the things I love to be sins.”  Be prepared to be hated if you do. 

            It’s as though people actually believe, that in that moment when they were baptized, their pastor slipped one of those Monopoly “get out of jail free” cards into their gown.  And from the moment of baptism until the moment they face the grave, it doesn’t matter what they do, how they live, whose voices they let fill them up, who they serve, who they love.  No, to these people, come the Day of Judgment, they’ll be searching all of their pockets for that little card to turn it at the door.  “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.”  That sounds a lot like Word and Sacrament, doesn’t it?  Eating and drinking in His presence and hearing His Word?  And indeed, those things are central and core to who we are as the Church. So, notice how close to home for us the text comes. 

Jesus ends His answer saying, “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”  That’s not a conversation about all Christians and varying levels of reward in Paradise.  Last?  Outside the Church.  First?  In the Church.  The last who will be first are the nations, the Gentiles, those who were apart from God and His promises.  They were last to hear the Gospel, and yet some of them will be first, they will be His people, gathered with Him in the place of honor at His table.  But, those who were first, the Jews who were His chosen people, some of them will be last, that is, no longer of the faith, but cast out.  That’s the direction Jesus turns next as the text continues and He laments over the city of Jerusalem, and how He longed to gather them as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but they were not willing.

See how the devil can use this text to cause doubt in us.  That as Jesus speaks words of judgment, that not all who seek Him are saved, we begin to wonder what that means for us.  And unfortunately, this seems to be a hope-shattering text for many. 

So, how do I know?  How do I know if I’m going to be saved?  Lord, will those who are saved be few?  Let me address that last question first.  Comparatively, yes, those who are saved will be few.  In the world right now, of roughly 8 billion people, approximately ¼ of them, 2 billion, are Christian.  And those are simply the visible church, the ones who claim to be Christian, but some of them will likely hear these very words of Jesus on the Last Day.  The door is narrow.  Salvation is not the majority position. 

But is the number of people who will get to live forever with Christ in Paradise actually few?  As in, just a handful of all those who have ever walked this earth?  The answer to that is “no.”  The Jehovah’s Witnesses popularized the idea that Revelation 7’s 144,000 was a literal number.  That would be extremely shocking and depressing, and would lead nearly all of us to despair.  But just a few verses later, John reveals that the number of saints gathered around the throne was a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”  Paradise will be full.  The new heaven and the new earth that Jesus is preparing for us even now will be full.  And as our Lord Jesus said, “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.”  The door of Paradise is open to you, O people of the west.

But that’s the shaken-hope, doubt-driven question raised by this text.  How do I know that the door of Paradise is open to me

By His death upon the cross, Jesus opened the door of Paradise to all people, just like that open ark before the flood waters came.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life,” – John 3:16.  “As I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” – Ezekiel 33:11.  “[God] desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” – 1 Timothy 2:4.

You’ve been invited.  By the waters of baptism and the proclamation of the gospel, this faith has been made yours.  You are His child.  It’s not something you can earn, but a gift that’s already paid for, a gift that is so lovingly given.  To you.  For you.  From Jesus.  And this isn’t a competition.  The Pharisees typically had perfect attendance at church.  And yet, many of them won’t be there.

Here’s the warning of the text: if you think you can live your life business as usual, spending your days doing whatever you please, and just say on the Last Day, “I know Jesus,” things will end very badly for you.  The door of Paradise has been opened to you through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ!  You’ve been a gift of infinite value, more than anything this world could possibly offer you.  Rejoice in this gift of faith.  Treasure it, treasure Jesus.  Live in Him.  And spend your days doing the good works God has prepared for you, as a part of His family, showing others that Jesus indeed has made the door to Paradise open to them, also.

Tabula Rasa: Are We Really Blank Slates?

Colossians 1:21-29

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

July 17, 2022

Focus:  God has reconciled us to Himself by His flesh.

Function:  That the hearers are filled not with the lies of this world, but with the mystery revealed to us in Christ.

Structure:  .

Tabula Rasa: Are We Really Blank Slates?

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

            I was so excited last week to preach on Leviticus for the first time, I actually had two sermons in mind from that text alone, but once I’ve said the words “Amen. Come Lord Jesus!” no one has ever asked me to just preach another one.  *pause.  There really was another thread that connected Leviticus and Colossians last week, that actually is picked up again today as we combine Colossians with the gospel in Luke.  So, I’m going to pull on that thread.

            It starts with the opening verse of our epistle reading, “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds.”  We don’t actually believe that line.  Do we?  That apart from Christ, we’re nothing but evil?  How many of you would look around in your family and in your neighborhood, and as you see the people there who aren’t Christian, would call them hostile and evil?  All of them?

            We reject this Word of God practically in our daily lives because we want to believe that the people around us are generally good and faithful, even though they aren’t Christians.  This is why we’re surprised when we see evil happen.  Every school shooting, it’s the same questions.  How could they possibly do such an evil thing?  The old mantra was that abortions should be “safe and rare.”  Well, today, it’s #shoutyourabortion, and we see women pridefully boasting about murdering their own children and how good it is to do so.  And we wonder how they can miss such a marvelous gift, and treat their own child with such contempt, like a parasite.  That’s a term that’s really used by our culture about their own children.  We wonder how in dark of night, someone could possibly think it’s okay to slip under another man’s vehicle, cutting out his catalytic converter, and selling the metal for scrap.  And how they can be bold enough to do it even in broad daylight in the parking lots of shopping centers.

            We’ve fallen for the world’s foolishness.  It’s an old philosophical term, tabula rasa.  The world around us believes that every person starts with a mind that has had nothing imprinted on it, or, to put it simply, that we all start out as blank slates.  Both political parties see it this way.  If only we can just fix the culture, if only we can just get the right people in office, the right laws passed.  If only we can just get rid of the people who don’t think like us.  Then!  Then the children of the next generation will turn out good.  Then there’ll be no more violence.  Then there’ll be no more rape.  Then there’ll be no more need for police.

            But this isn’t what God teaches us in His holy Word.  This text would be enough.  We were once alienated from God, hostile in our minds to His creation and to all that is good, doing evil deeds.  When?  When was that us?  As Paul writes to the church in Colossae, he’s writing to an infant church, that hasn’t been Christian for any more than a decade.  They were planted as a congregation by one of Paul’s fellow prisoners, Epaphras.  And having learned of their faith, Paul now writes to them to encourage them, to build upon that faith in Christ.

            Like the Colossians, there was a time when this verse applied to us: before Christ.  Before the Holy Spirit created faith in us.  Before God claimed us as His own, adopting us as His children through baptism.  This text, like many other Scriptures, tells us the starting point of man.  We aren’t blank slates.  As King David put it in Psalm 51, “In sin did my mother conceive me.”  Even from conception.  It’s the old question: where do we start out?  Are close to God?  Are we far off?  Are we oriented toward God to move closer to Him?  Or are we pointed in the other direction?  Christian churches debate this a lot, but the Scriptures themselves are actually quite clear on this one.

            Even in the womb, we’re alienated from God.  Even in the womb, we’ve rejected His grace and His goodness.  Even in the womb, our thoughts are fixed not on caring for this creation, but our thoughts are hostile towards God as we’re already plotting out how we can be our own little gods, caring for ourselves.  Babies aren’t blank slates when it comes to good and evil, Christ and Satan.  We’re rebels from the start.  And no amount of parenting can fix that.  No culture can fix that.  That’s like when you’re eating Doritos or Cheetos, and you get some of that orange powdery cheesy stuff on your shirt, and you try to rub it off with your hand, forgetting that your hand is also covered in orange powder.  We can’t fix this problem.

            So Paul continues.  “He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.”  Holy.  That means perfect.  Anyone here perfect?  Blameless.  That means you’ve never done anything wrong or harmed another.  Anyone here blameless?  Above reproach.  That means no one can look down on you for the foolish things that you’ve said or done in your past.  Anyone here above reproach?

            Every hand should be up.  All of us.  This is the mystery Paul is talking about.  Christ is in you.  And because Christ is in you, this is how God now sees you.  Holy, perfect, blameless, above reproach. 

            This is what Jesus’ blood does.  This is the power of the cross in our daily lives.  He takes our sin, our wrongs, our mistakes, our harms, our foolishness, and He crucifies it all with Himself.  Dead.  Done.  Gone.

            We are reconciled to God.  That’s the opposite of alienation.  To be alienated is to be foreign, apart from.  Our sins separated, alienated us from God.  We were cast out of His presence, our rebellion driving God further and further from us.  Like the person that tries to help someone they love, but to no avail, as the recipient only turns further and further away.  To be reconciled is to be put back together again, to be restored, a relationship healed, fixed. 

This is what Christ has done for us.  He has reconciled us to Himself, and to His Father.  And it’s deeper than it sounds.  On the surface, it already sounds great.  It sounds like God took our slates and wiped them clean, like we get to be blank slates again.  But what’s wrong with that picture?  You know the answer.  Since your baptism, since the first time you heard the words of Jesus, how have you done?  Have you kept it all?  Have you been perfect, blameless, and above reproach all your Christian days?

If all the blood of Christ did for us was to make us clean once, none of us would stand a chance.  We would be fleeing to this altar every minute of every day, begging for our slates to be wiped clean again.  Wondering if we’ve been forgiven enough.  Wondering if we might’ve sinned once too many times.  Can you see it?  If this is all the blood of Christ did, we would only ever keep filling our slates.  And then, in the moment of our death, because our confidence was placed in ourselves and we panic not knowing if we’ve been good enough to get to heaven.  Or, we’d find ourselves dying in a moment where we were having a sinful thought or doing a sinful deed.  If this were so, we’d all be damned.

But thanks be to God, who “chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”!  Did you catch it?  The mystery of salvation has been made known even to us.  And the mystery is this: Christ is in you.  Jesus’ death and resurrection don’t simply wipe our slates clean.  Yes, He absolutely does that.  But He doesn’t leave your board empty.  Christ Himself said that if He drove out one demon, sweeping the house clean, seven more demons would come back with it and inhabit that house, and that man would be worse off than he was before (Luke 11:26). 

No, your board is wiped clean.  And Christ dwells in you.  The house isn’t empty, the board isn’t empty.  Christ has written Himself upon it.  Christ’s name has been placed upon both your forehead and upon your heart, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  You are His. 

And so, on the Last Day, when you come before the judgment throne of God, Jesus will present you, as His bride, Ephesians 5 style, holy, and blameless, and above reproach.  And God, the judge of all that is, will see you in that very way.  He will see you as holy, because of Christ.  He will see you as blameless, because of Christ.  He will see you as above reproach, because of Christ.  Christ in you.

In this we’ve come full circle to that thread I wanted to pull last week.  God told Moses to tell the Israelites,

You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow My rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God. 

What happened to those peoples?  Looking back, God judged the Egyptians for their paganism, their rebellion, their evil deeds through the plagues.  And looking ahead, into the Promised Land, God judged the Canaanites, the Hivites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Perizzites, the Amorites, and the Girgashites because they were hostile of mind.  These peoples rejected God, and so He rejected them.  Live like them, end up like them.  Don’t live like them.  Seek God and live.

And so it is today.  It’s increasingly fair to say, that if America is promoting and pushing for something, it’s probably contrary to God’s will.  In Romans 1, God tells us that after a while, He eventually gives hardened sinners the desires of their wicked hearts, leading to their own destruction.  This land vehemently rejects God and rebels against Him, calling good evil, and evil good, and I can’t help but think the Lord has already given over the people of this land to the hardness of their hearts. 

But we’re not called to this.  Don’t live like the Egyptians.  Don’t walk in the ways of Canaan.  Don’t do as they do in America.  This is the challenge that our church, and every church, faces.  Because going back to where we started today, we don’t see the enemy right before our eyes, we believe people are generally good, ignoring that God’s Word says the opposite.

But storytelling has never been neutral.  People don’t just tell stories for no good reason.  Stories are told to move you, to shape you, to excite you.  For generations now, we have believed we could finish a hard day’s work and then unplug from the stress of life by plugging into our favorite form of entertainment.  But as we think we’re escaping to a neutral story, we’re not.  That news station has a message they are forming you to believe.  That movie has a story that it wants you to be formed into.  That song has a way of looking at life it wants to teach you is good.  And their stories are working.  With each of the last four generations, the percentage who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation has plummeted.

I’m not saying we must become Amish and swear off all technology, because even then, there’d still be stories.  But we must be like Mary in the gospel.  There is but one thing needful, and Jesus wouldn’t take it away from her.  She was sitting at His feet, learning of His salvation.  She was being formed, shaped, and filled by the One who created all things and has reconciled even us.

If we sit at primarily at His feet, in worship, in His Word, in prayer, in the mutual consolation of the brethren, in fellowshipping around His table, Christ is in us.  And those seven unclean spirits have no room to call their own.  The more we’re filled with Christ, the better we can discern the lying stories that the world is trying to sell us as good.  As Jesus said in John 8, of those who aren’t His followers, their father is the devil, the father of lies.  And the more we’re filled with Christ, the more willing and able we are to give our neighbors a reason for the hope that is in us.  For they are but pawns in Satan’s game; he is the master, the king, the true enemy.  And snatched from his hand, they become a queen, the very Bride of Christ Himself, as He presents them holy, blameless, and above reproach.  Even us.  Once we were alienated, hostile, doers of evil.  But now, we have been reconciled by His blood. And God the Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!