Hearing the Gospel according to Mark

Mark 1:1-8

Second Sunday in Advent

December 6, 2020

Focus:  God forgives the sins of the humble who repent.

Function:  That the hearers, as repentant people, call others to repentance also.

Structure:  2 parts – character study and short homily.

Hearing the Gospel according to Mark

            Last weekend marked the celebration of the Church’s New Year, beginning another calendar year together that revolves all around the life and ministry of Jesus and His bride the Church.  I even received two posters of the circular Church calendar in the mail just this week!  (Hold it up.)  I’ll leave this on the back table for you to look at if you’d like as you leave today.  But, certainly take the time to reflect on each season and how they all uniquely point you to Christ: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and finally Pentecost, which includes the Church’s work of sharing the gospel to all nations.

            As we move through the calendar, we use the different gospel accounts to help us focus a little differently each year.  Last year we learned of Christ from Matthew.  This year, from Mark.  And next year, from Luke.  Then we’ll repeat that cycle over and over again, too, as the Church has been doing for a long time now.

            Since we’ll be opening up our Bibles together to read from Mark’s account of the gospel another thirty times before this year is up, I thought it would be helpful for me to share with you what I know about this disciple.

            Mark isn’t one of the Twelve disciples who followed Jesus so closely for those three years, like Matthew and John.  Instead, Mark comes into the picture later, beginning with Acts 12.  We learn from Paul’s writings that Mark is the cousin of Barnabas (Colossians 4:10), a traveling companion of Paul.  And so for a time, Paul and Barnabas are on a missionary journey together, and Mark with them.  But, John Mark, as he is also known, abandons them on that journey for reasons the Bible doesn’t say (Acts 13:13).  We simply hear that he heads off to his home in Jerusalem. 

            Paul and Barnabas end up fighting over whether or not to take Mark along on the second missionary journey, so much so that they end up parting ways and going on separate missionary journeys (Acts 15:36-41).  Thankfully, Paul and Mark do eventually reconcile, as Paul will call him “very useful to me” as he writes to the young pastor Timothy (2 Timothy 4:11).

            Peter will at one point refer to Mark as his “son” in 1 Peter 5:13.  That likely should be read as a spiritual fatherhood, that perhaps Peter is the one who first shared the gospel with Mark, or at least helped bring him to a mature faith.  This makes sense, as Peter spent a lot of his time after Pentecost working with the Christians living in Mark’s hometown of Jerusalem.

            Eventually, Mark makes his own way down to Africa, to northern Egypt, to the city of Alexandria.  He is considered to be the one who planted the first Christian church there.  And while that city would go on to be the hub of Christendom a few centuries later, it wasn’t always that friendly to the gospel.  Many of the Alexandrian people were so angry with Mark for telling them to repent of their idols, their false gods, that they put a rope around his neck and dragged him through the city streets until he was dead.  That happened in 68 AD, the same year the Romans executed both Paul and Peter in Rome.

            Mark’s gospel account is known as the action gospel, because he keeps it so quickly paced.  It’s only about three-fifths (62% the size of Matthew; 58% compared to Luke) the size of what Matthew and Luke needed to share the same message.  And our best guess is that he was writing to the Roman people.  The action-packed writing style probably would’ve helped with that, but there’s one key detail that shows up in today’s reading that says it more loudly than anything else: the title Mark gives to Jesus, “the Son of God.”  Only one man in the entire gospel speaks those words about Jesus: the Roman centurion, at the foot of the cross, in Mark 15:39, which we’ll read together the Sunday before Easter.

            Our The Lutheran Study Bible, sums up the purpose of Mark’s writing like this: “To proclaim Jesus the Son of God, who calls disciples to repent, to believe the Gospel, and to bear the cross,” (pg. 1652).  That’s a great transition back to the text we read today, as Mark puts most of that into these opening verses, everything but bearing the cross, although arguably that’s precisely what John the Baptist is doing in the text.

            We have another chance next month to focus on John’s baptism, as he baptizes Jesus on Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, January 10th.  So today I want to focus on the idea of what John came to do: to “make His paths straight.”

            As a prophet sent by God Himself, John’s job, his task is clearly revealed to us as far back as 700 years before, spoken first by the prophet Isaiah (40:3).  To prepare people to see their coming Savior.  Isaiah speaks of it as a leveling, valleys filled, mountains lowered, everything being made straight and smooth and walkable.  After John’s work is done, there is no excuse.  No one can rightly say “I never heard of Him” or “I never saw Him.” 

            John risked his life, even gave his life, to this calling and purpose.  He spent his days preaching and teaching anyone would listen.  Mark even boldly says “all Judea and Jerusalem.”  He calls them to repentance, to give up their sins and their idols, and instead trust in God’s provisions, given through this Son.  John’s life is forfeited when that message of repentance falls on King Herod’s deaf ears (Mark 6).

            But before that day came, John pointed many to Jesus, to their Savior.  And those newly baptized disciples went and did likewise.  And those they pointed to Christ then pointed others to Christ.  And what was at the time of the crucifixion and resurrection a very small group numbering in the dozens, today stands at over two billion people who are still fighting the good fight of the Church Militant.

            John humbly called people to repent, and many responded with their own humility, trusting that there really is a forgiveness of sins that comes through the blood of Jesus Christ.  And at some point or another, the path was made straight for your family tree.  For some of you, it’s so many generations ago, you can’t track it down.  But there may even be a few gathered among us together this day who are the first in their line to place their hope and their trust in Christ.

            There is beauty in hearing this call.  It’s not that we’re no longer sinners.  Unfortunately, we still are, each and every one of us.  No, the beauty is that you know where to go with your sins.  Can you think of anyone in Scripture who sinned against God and didn’t know where to go with that guilt?  Of course, the Word is filled with such people, but Judas Iscariot jumps to my mind pretty quickly.  He thought he knew where to take his sin and his guilt.  But when he confessed, all he heard was “what is that to us? See to it yourself.”  The tragedy of his sin was met with the tragedy of no forgiveness, and the result was a terrible death.

            You know people who are like Judas.  Who know that they have sinned, even if they can’t articulate it that way.  They know they’ve committed wrongs, and the guilt is eating at them and driving them to despair.  And in that dark place, where do they turn?  They turn to another dark place.  Many use addictions like drugs, alcohol, or pornography to fill that void, thinking they can just drown out all the guilt.  But the guilt of their addiction only adds to the guilt they already felt, and the distance between them and the surface is only deeper. 

Others turn to the endless stream of “self-help” books, apps, and preachers, thinking that if they only try hard enough, they can scratch and claw their way back out of the chasmic hole they’ve dug for themselves.  Sadly, even many Christian churches through the centuries have fallen into that dreadful trap, teaching the people of God that it’s even possible to make your own way out of the hole.  As you fight and claw day after day scaling that wall with no rest in sight, one of two things happens.  You reach an obstacle you can’t overcome, a guilt too burdensome for you to forgive yourself or to repair the wrong you’ve done.  And it sits above your head like a rock ledge jutted out from the wall.  You can’t go around it.  You’re just stuck.  Or, even if you never reach that hazard, eventually, you tire of trying, of scaling, day after day and year after year, and you simply let go, and fall to the bottom of the bottomless pit.  Either way, eventually you fail.  And death consumes you.

This is the end for those who don’t know where to turn with their sins.  But you do!  You do know!  You know to repent of your sins, all the wicked thoughts, words, and deeds that so consume your day-to-day life.  You know to bring them right here! (point to the foot of the cross).  And what happens when you do?! (pause for hearers to consider).  Christ forgives you!  That sin, that guilt, is taken off your shoulders and off your plate.  He takes your sin upon Himself, as though it were His own.  His thought.  His word.  His deed.  And He dies for it.  He dies for you.  This is the promise of the gospel, whether we hear it from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  Your sins are forgiven.  That chasm that separated you from God has been filled in by the body and blood of your Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as He fills you with Himself.  There is no longer a wall to be scaled.  There is no longer a sorrow to be drowned.  You are His!

As it has been done before you, so it is now.  As John preached repentance and pointed to the gospel, and his hearers then preached repentance and pointed to the gospel, and eventually someone in that path preached repentance and pointed your family to the gospel, now the task of John falls to you.  It’s now your turn, as disciples of Christ, to make other disciples of Christ by preaching repentance and pointing to the Gospel.

You can’t save another person, no matter how hard you try.  It’s not your job.  You can’t convince them, no matter how hard you try. The Bible says the unbeliever is a fool (Psalm 14:1).  And you can’t argue logic with fools.  The task of creating faith in your neighbor belongs to God.  Leave that job to Him.  Your job is simply to point the way.  To tell your neighbor drowning in the smell of liquor or the sweat of lust that there is hope in the midst of all their despair.  To tell your neighbor whose stress is so unbearable as they try to fix everything in their life that there is One who has already fixed all things for them!  This is the hope of the gospel, whether they hear it from _____, _____, ______, or ______ (insert names of people present). 

I love the way one of our seminary professors, Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Oschwald phrased it:

“In the wilderness of our lives, a voice now calls. In this wild mess that we have made of our life, a wilderness that constantly wants to turn us back into beasts—beasts of prey or beasts of burden—one voice cries out: “Prepare a highway! A highway in the wilderness! Someone is coming to you! He’s not waiting in town.’ He’s not waiting until you can find the way out, until you can make your way to him. He is forging His way through the wilderness in which you live. And His road in will be your road out!’

“That’s why the road needs to be smooth and level. Your King will walk this road; that is true. But on this road, He will lead you and all His lost ones out of the wilderness to His Promised Land.

“That’s news worth announcing. May God bless you as you prepare yourself and your people to be God’s Advent Announcers.”

-https://concordiatheology.org/2008/12/advent-2-%c2%b7-mark-11-8-%c2%b7-december-7-2008/

God’s Good Land

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

Thanksgiving Day

November 26, 2020

Focus:  God humbles His people that they may live with Him forever.

Function:  That the hearers give thanks to the Lord for He is good and His mercy endures forever.

Structure:  This is the historical situation of the text…here is the meaning for us now.

God’s Good Land

            Our text today takes us back 3500 years ago to the time just after the Exodus from Egypt.  God has promised to care for His people and to give them a land that will be their own.  After seeing them oppressed by Pharaoh and his taskmasters, and after hearing them cry out to Him for help, God acted.  He delivered.  He rescued His people from the clutches of an enemy.

            You know that account well.  The ten plagues that God brought upon the land of Egypt in order to show that He alone is God over the earth.  All of the idols of the people of Egypt are nothing but statues.  Powerless.  Meaningless.  Empty.  And that tenth and final plague broke Pharaoh and the Egyptians sent God’s people packing.  Sadly, despite all that they had seen with their own eyes, the Israelites still don’t trust God and constantly bicker against Him and chase after new idols of their own making.  They even idolized their old life back in Egypt!

            Because of these things, God didn’t let them enter the land that He had promised to them, a land flowing with milk and honey, a land of peace, comfort, and satisfaction.  Reread verses 7-10 and tell me you wouldn’t want to live there!  It sounds like a paradise.

            Their lack of faithfulness, their idolatry, their constant breaking of the commandments of God led to a humbling.  God acted against His people.  He led them for forty years through the vast wilderness surrounding Mount Sinai.  God let them feel what it was like to be without.  Without food, without a home.  But He never left them.  He acted to discipline them, to show them what they were truly lacking.  The punishments of God on His own people were very much like the punishment of Egypt.  The aim was to bring about repentance, to lead the people to trust in Him alone.

            When God brings judgment that is survivable, the purpose is for repentance.  That people would turn from their sins and look to Him.  If God is bringing judgment simply to punish people for their sins, they don’t survive.  The righteous Judge can do this, and He has done it, and He will do it.  We can think of the flood.  We can think of the tribe of Korah being swallowed whole by the earth for their rebellion.

            You might be wondering where I’m going with this sermon on Thanksgiving.  We read: “So you shall keep the commandments of Yahweh your God by walking in His ways and by fearing Him.”  It’s no secret that the fear of Yahweh has left the land that we live in.  A million children are murdered here legally each year.  Around the world, it’s 38 million already this year alone.  We have decimated the fundamental relationship God created for His creation, that of a man and a woman, a husband and his bride.  Over a century ago, we labeled the primary purpose of marriage as money, taxes to be specific.  That opened the door, and that opening has only gotten bigger ever since, to the point where today we see a rate of divorce of 50%, and anyone can marry just about anyone they want…because that’s the focus, what the individual wants.  We live in a land where we actually think we have the ability to choose our governors, spitting in the face of a God who says that He alone can grant that authority.  Everything around us screams “Pride!”

            I can’t guarantee you that the present pandemic of our day isn’t directly sent by the hand of God.  We must admit that it’s at least a possibility.  A survivable plague for the purpose of bringing about repentance, as He has done many times before.  Of a discipline, a humbling, to cause people to lose faith in their idols.  Even if we want to say it’s not from Him, we still must confess the truth of the Scriptures that He has all authority over His creation, and that He is in control of all things. 

            And so even now, even here, even in a time when death is staring us in the face stronger than it normally does, and the virus has destroyed many of our idols that we clung to so dearly, are we seeing repentance?  Are we seeing people turning away from themselves to seek shelter in Yahweh and in His mercy?  Are we seeing people fleeing from their sins to the foot of the cross, to hear the forgiveness of their Savior Jesus?  Nope!  Instead, old idols are replaced with new ones.  We don’t need God to save us; a vaccine will!  We don’t need God to protect us; masks will!  Somehow, we expect our government to rescue us from an invisible enemy.

            All of this brings us to the moment where we find ourselves today.  A Thanksgiving unlike any we’ve celebrated before.  Family gatherings have been declared illegal in some places.  And even where they aren’t, relatives are foregoing their traditional meals and get togethers.  For many, the usual day of family will instead be a day of isolation.  And it’s not unlikely that many are sitting wherever they’re sitting right now asking themselves what they even have to be thankful for at all this year.

            Our late brother in Christ, Robert Estienne, the guy who put chapter and verse numbers in our Bibles, left us with a great set of three verses in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.  I use these verses to pick on confirmation students every few years, telling them they’ll have to memorize three verses for homework.  That often gets met with groans and complaints.  But say them with me: “Rejoice always.” Pause. That was verse sixteen.  “Pray without ceasing.” Pause.  That was verse seventeen.  And, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  I admit, verse eighteen is a little longer, but that’s doable right?

            Most people don’t see 2020 as a year for rejoicing.  They don’t see their present circumstances as a reason to be thankful.  And yet, God tells us that they are!  That we should rejoice.  That we should be thankful.  But why?  Pastor, what is there to be thankful for right now?

            There isn’t a person here that the pandemic hasn’t stolen from.  For some, it has taken things out of your life that you loved, whether that’s family gatherings or going to the movies.  Others have been led to despair and loneliness, left all alone and separated from any meaningful touch or contact.  And others still have even been robbed of those closest to them.  And yet, God tells us that we still have cause for rejoicing and thankfulness.

            To rejoice is to have joy again.  And joy is that which we treasure.  Sinners like us like to treasure the things of this world that are fading and disappearing.  But there’s only one true joy, there’s only one lasting treasure that this world can know: and that’s Jesus.  This pandemic, whether it was sent by God or not, has stripped away the many things in our lives that we had allowed to become idols.  We have the opportunity to repent of our idols, and to once again find our treasure and thus our joy in Jesus.  That is to rejoice in Him and in what He has done for us, and what He has promised He is still going to do for us.

To give thanks in this world is to be grateful to the One who has given you this world.  As the pandemic forced many to work from home, they had the opportunity to see their families again.  As the pandemic struck and made breathing difficult, it gave us the opportunity to see every breath as the gift that it really is rather than taking them for granted.  As we have come to be a culture that is all about the love of self, the pandemic has caused us to think about those who live their lives, and risk their lives, in service to others.

We have so much to be thankful for.  God has gifted you this very day.  He has given you the breath that you draw even now.  He has given you a voice that can share His love with others around you.  Hands and feet that do His good works in service of others.  He has given you a home to shelter you from the cold that is coming, and that you can use to be hospitable to those in need.  The actual needs of the body aren’t that many; but God has provided you all of that, and then some more.

The pandemic has made a culture that fears and flees from death stop and stare that same death in the face.  And as Christians, we know that this points us to Christ.  Because as death glares at us, we are forced to ask what comes next.  We are forced to look beyond this simple moment, beyond just a routine and normal day.  The day is coming when I won’t draw another breath.  And what happens then?! 

For us, we know.  We know that Jesus Christ breathed His last upon the cross of Golgotha in order to rescue us from all of our idolatry, from our pride, from our lack of trust in Him and His provision, from our thinking that we could live forever by our own doing.  Jesus frees us from our sins.  And then as death grabbed Him and tried to smother Him forever, Christ broke the bonds of death and burst open that tomb.  He rose from the dead to conquer death also for you.  The grave couldn’t hold Him.  And now you have the promise that the grave cannot hold you!  And everyone of you has multiple neighbors ready and desperate to hear that good news. 

We rejoice in Christ.  We joy in Jesus again.  Knowing that He has saved us.  Knowing that He gives us life.  Knowing that He will faithfully keep His final promise to us:

7 For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. 10 And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.

I mentioned it earlier in the sermon, that that sounds like Paradise.  Well, that’s because it is.  The Old Testament Promised Land foreshadowed the new heaven and the new earth that God is preparing for all those who joy in Him.  A place where He is our God forevermore.  Where He provides richly for all our needs.  Where food isn’t scarce, but a feast.  Where all who are gathered together are one, large family of brothers and sisters in Christ.  Where we will never be alone or despairing again.

God is your protector and defender.  God is the One who gives you your daily bread.  He is the One who delivers you from your enemies, even from death itself.  And so we rejoice!  We give thanks this day, and all days, because our God is faithful, He is with us, and He is for us.  Bless Yahweh your God, for the good land He has promised to your fathers and even to you.

Sharing in the Master’s Mission

Matthew 25:14-30

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2020

Focus:  God invites us to do the work of His kingdom.

Function:  That the hearers proclaim the gospel to their neighbors.

Structure:  Here is a prevailing view…but here is the claim of the gospel.

Sharing in the Master’s Mission

Today I invite you to consider that you may not know Jesus’ Parable of the Talents as well as you might think.  I certainly didn’t!  I’ve heard it again and again; I thought I knew it.  But as I stared at the text, my old understanding just didn’t fit.  It’s a humbling moment, to realize that we need to let God’s Word shape us, rather than think we can shape God’s Word to our liking.

            The last time I preached on this text, I looked at it from the angle of stewardship.  And I’d guess, that’s the approach to this text that you’re used to.  Let’s break down that perspective. 

In this parable, we have a master, who was about to go on a journey, and entrusts all that he owns to his servants.  Two of them are faithful in using these things to better their master’s position, while the other one, out of fear of what the master may do to him if he fails, simply hides the money away to keep it safe.  Upon the master’s return, those first two men are lauded for their efforts, and get to stay with the master in his house.  But the third man is called “worthless,” and cast out altogether.

            There is some good truth to this stewardship interpretation of the parable.  It unpacks like this: God the Father is the Master.  He is the Creator of all things, and as we see as far back as Genesis 1, God entrusts His creation to us.  All that we have comes from Him; it’s His.  We aren’t owners of anything, only caretakers.  We’re stewards, managers of His resources.  So we are tasked with caring for the things that God has entrusted to us, and to use them for the good of His kingdom. 

            A sermon could easily take off here looking at the four T’s of stewardship.  How do you use your time, talent, treasures, and technology to serve those people around you?  And when you look at it that way, the Law of the text is easy: just point to the times where we aren’t faithful.  Where we use the time in our day, the income we’ve “earned,” or the skills that we have, not to serve God, but to serve ourselves.  And we all do that every day.

            But while there’s Biblical truth and backing to all of that, and even good benefit to reviewing those things in our own lives, I’m not going to do that here today with you.  As I studied the text this week, I’m now convinced this isn’t a stewardship parable.  And here’s the two things that convinced me: first, we have to look at the context.  What is Jesus talking about before the text, and after?  The text right before our reading today is what you heard here last weekend, the Parable of the Ten Virgins.  That parable is a judgment parable, about being prepared, ready, alert when Christ comes back, instead of falling into the tempting trap that you can live your life for yourself because you’ve got time before the Groom arrives. 

And then right after this parable for today, Jesus tells His disciples about how on the Last Day He will separate the sheep from the goats.  Those who served their neighbor, who fed the hungry and visited the sick, they hear that they’ve done these things for Jesus Himself and are judged as faithful and get to enter into His kingdom.  But those who failed to give drink to the thirsty or to visit those in prison, are told that they didn’t do these things for Jesus and they are judged as faithless and cast into Hell.

The context that surrounds this Parable of the Talents is about the judgment of God on the Last Day when Christ returns.  That encourages us to see this parable as a parable about judgment, rather than stewardship.

And the second thing that pushed me in this direction is looking at the third man in the parable.  What does Jesus say is wrong with him?  The stewardship view would say we abused the gifts, that we used them for ourselves or our idols.  But this man didn’t do that.  Jesus judges him as worthless because he didn’t use the gifts at all.  He steps away from the task that he has been given to do.

The judgment perspective I’m offering you today then views the master in the parable more specifically as Jesus Christ Himself.  Consider it this way.  The journey that the master is about to embark on is the Ascension of Jesus Christ into the heavenly throne room where He is then seated at the right hand of God.  And He doesn’t entrust everything in creation to all people, but He very specifically entrusts His disciples with a mission.

Join me on this one: where would you turn in God’s Word if you wanted to find out what mission God entrusted to His disciples?  Which two gospel authors tell us about Christ’s ascension? (Matthew and Luke).  And what mission do they tell us Jesus entrusted to His disciples on that day?

Matthew 28:19-20 – “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

I know you’ve heard these words before.  I said them to you just last week.  But I don’t say them for nothing, or even because I like the words.  No, your Master went away on a journey, and before He left, He entrusted this thing to you: a mission, a word, a message to be proclaimed.  The thing entrusted is the very gospel itself.  God has called you as His child, as His servant, as His slave, as His disciple to go and to make and to baptize and to teach and to witness.

The Parable of the Talents, then, asks us as the disciples of Christ: do we do the mission or not?  Do we take the things of God and share them with others?  Or, like the third man, do we set the gospel aside and out of sight?  Have we stepped out of the game altogether?

This is why the amounts of money in the parable don’t seem to matter.  The Master, Jesus, responds to the guy who made five and the guy who made two in precisely the same way.  They both receive His praise and get to live in His kingdom.  They’re both in!  And even in the judgment of the third man, Jesus declares that the money should’ve been left at the bank where it at least it would’ve gained interest.  In all that time, that’s still just a few spare coins.  But that’s still fruitful labor!  It’s like in the Parable of the Sower, where the seed cast on good soil produces a harvest, some 30 fold, some 60 fold, and some 100 fold.  Jesus doesn’t demand the exact same results of each of His disciples.  He gives to us according to how He knows us.  And His demand is that we are faithful, that we are active in His mission that He gave us to do.

So the Law of this text, then, doesn’t actually dig into the nitty, gritty details of every moment of your life to find those times where you could’ve been a better steward.  The Law of this text has a much greater and more profound hit: do we know our Master and His mission?  Do we, as the people who bear the name of Christ, actually know Him?  Is our faith in Him?  Is our trust in His care and His protection?  Or is it in the things of this world, or the work of our own hands?  Just a few minutes ago, before I gave you the answer, could you answer the question about what mission Jesus has entrusted to you as His disciple?  Do we even realize that He has created us for the very purpose of telling others about Him?

The Parable of the Talents demands us to ask ourselves if we have set the mission aside.  Like the worthless servant, the devil tempts us to quit, to forfeit the task Jesus left to us.  For some Christians, this is done out of a fear of God’s holiness.  They fear failure.  They fear that if they were actually to try to share the gospel with others, they’d mess it up; they’d say the wrong things; they’d make a mistake when they try to quote Scripture; or they’d say something wrong about God.  They fear that if they even bother trying, they’ll only make things worse.  And so they bury the gospel where no one can find it and no one will ask them about it.

But there are others who bear the name of Christ who set aside the mission of Christ not out of fear of God, but out of a fearful idolatry of self.  These are the people who are afraid that if they tell someone about Jesus, they’ll lose a friend or a family member over it.  They’re afraid of losing their job, or their wealth, or their social standing, or in some places, even their head.  They’re afraid that if they carry out the mission of Jesus Christ in this world, it’ll have a negative impact on their life.  This fear is an idol, an idol of the self, an idol of life, an idol of safety.  And in this fear, they bury the gospel away so that no one will know they bear of name of Christ.

Both of these people are approaching a judgment day where Christ will look at them and call them a wicked and slothful servant.  Thankfully, if I’ve just described you, and it’s possible that I’ve just described all of us at one point in our life or another, if you’ve stepped out of the mission for any reason, there is good news for you here today.

The gospel of this text for either of those hypothetical people is the same.  The Master has not yet returned from His journey! The gospel then is that God has shown you mercy, that He has spared you from His wrath, and even that He has granted you repentance this day.  As you mourn and grieve your sin, He has forgiven you.  You are His.  He takes away the declaration that you are worthless, instead showing you what you are worth to Him by pointing you to His own Son’s blood, which He willingly shed for you.

And if you’ve been active in the mission, the gospel speaks to you in a different way, although it ends in the same place.  The good news is that it’s not about you.  It doesn’t matter how well you’ve done at the work.  You did a bad job yesterday of teaching your children about Christ, either by actively being a bad example, or passively just forgetting to do it at all?  Christ forgives you!  You failed to see the opportunity to serve your neighbor last week until it was already too late, and that missed moment has been eating at you ever since, playing on repeat in your mind?  Jesus forgives you! 

And for all those whom He calls His disciples, He once again entrusts the mission to you.  Just as He did on the day of His ascension, He continues to invite you to be a part of His kingdom, His mission, the work of His family.

You are not of this world.  You are not entrenched in the things that this world loves or battles over.  You are Church, which in Greek literally means you are the ones “called out.”  God has called you out of this world and its ways and gathered you together with the rest of His bride, the Church.  You are a child of God, a child of the King.  You are a disciple of Christ.  Jesus has entrusted you with a very different mission than the world has.  You are holy.  You are set apart to share Christ with others.  And as the forgiven child of God that you are, you look forward to that day when you get to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your Master.”  And it is the aim of the mission that Christ has entrusted to us that our neighbors will get to hear the same.

Encourage One Another

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Proper 27

November 8, 2020

Focus:  God will raise the dead and spare the living.

Function:  That the hearers encourage one another to share the gospel.

Structure:  Controlling Metaphor.

Encourage One Another

            Nearly two thousand years ago, somewhere in the range of the years 27-30 AD, in the city of Jerusalem, the eleven remaining young men who had followed Jesus so closely sat cowering behind locked doors.  They didn’t even want to venture out for fear of what might happen to them if they did.

Their entire world had been turned upside-down.  They thought that they had found the Messiah, the One who would overthrow all those corrupted earthly kings and politicians and usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for the people of God.  But He insisted against their will that He had to go to Jerusalem, to the epicenter of those who opposed His rule.  And they weren’t about to let Him do that alone. 

            To their surprise, it actually started off well.  The peoples lined the street celebrating Jesus’ arrival.  They shouted “Save us, now” in their own native language.  They used palm branches to fan Him like a servant would fan their one true King.  The next couple of days were calmer, but filled with lots of time for Jesus to teach the people about His kingdom and His reign.  And then Thursday came, and they celebrated together the Passover meal, the grandest day of their calendar year, the festival of all festivals.

            But that night, they were betrayed, and their secret resting place was revealed to the haters who brought a batch of soldiers to arrest Jesus and lead Him away.  Within the next twenty hours, their Messiah had been found guilty, beaten, and publicly humiliated with the worst form of execution imaginable as He was nailed to a wooden cross outside the city gate for all to see and mock.

            Their Messiah.  Their King.  The One who was to overthrow Rome and put those wretched Pharisees in their place, too.  Gone.  Dead.  The last three years of their lives wasted.  Their hopes dashed.  They had no idea where to turn or what to do next.  All they knew was that if they didn’t hide, they would probably be crucified, too.

            Over the span of the next forty days, the resurrected Lord of Heaven and Earth, Jesus Christ, would appear to them time and time again.  He would come before them and speak peace to them.  He would walk with them, eat with them, teach them. 

All of these things encouraged them.  You can see it, slowly, as they grow bolder and bolder.  They were leaving the house again.  As long as Jesus was with them, they were willing to go outside.  And on that day, that fortieth day, they finally dared ask the question, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  They had waited long enough for peace.  They were ready for their prosperity.  They thought it was time for Rome to fall.  They only thought they were right.

As had so often been the case over the last three years, Jesus’ answer was nowhere near their line of thinking.  Not only did He not give them the answer they were looking for, He tells them to do something completely different.  Having already instructed them not to leave Jerusalem just yet, He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” (Acts 1:8).  And just as He finished speaking, He began to rise up off of the surface of the ground, ascending up into the air, where He was finally hidden from their sight by a cloud.

They responded the only way they knew how, which was once again to do nothing, to just keep staring.  But at that moment, the Lord provided two angels, who spoke to them saying, “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).

Today, in our reading, we learn the angels were correct.  Today’s texts are about the Day of the Lord, the day when Christ returns for His people.  It is a day that we the Church have been looking forward to for generations, literally millennia at this point.  And that day is drawing near.  That day, when the heavens above are opened, and Jesus descends down again past the clouds, bearing with Him this time the entire heavenly host, also known as the army of His angels.

On that day, all those who have placed their trust in the Lord will be raised to new life.  It matters not how long their bodies have been buried in the earth, or even if their ashes have been scattered to the wind.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses and Elijah.  Peter, James, and John.  Jan Hus and Martin Luther.  Many on your own family tree.  All those we remembered here last weekend.  The dead will rise.  Cemeteries will be an incredible sight as the Lord opens up the tombs, and lays sinew and muscle and flesh back together again.  This may even be true of you and me.

But if that happens today, or tomorrow, or before the sin that clings to your body drags you down into the grave, you will not taste death.  If you still draw breath on the day that the Lord has chosen from the time before the foundations of creation had even been laid, you will see that miraculous moment of the resurrection of all flesh.  You will see your risen Lord gathering those saints to Himself.  And as they have been summoned, so He will summon you to pass before His throne of judgment, covered by the blood that once flowed from the wounds that you will still be able to see in His body even on that day.  And you will hear the words that will probably be our sermon text next weekend as well, “Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your Master,” (Matthew 25:21, repeated also in v. 23).

While that may be all the details that we know about what the day of Christ’s return will look like, we know the hope that that day gives us.  Just as the disciples were encouraged by Christ’s resurrection and by His presence with them those many days, so also we are encouraged by the promises of Christ that we cling to each and every day.  We know that these words are true: “Christ is risen!” He is risen, indeed, Alleluia!  And because He has risen from the dead and because He lives forevermore and because He has promised those two very same things to us, we know that these words are true.  And that is probably our sermon text for two weekends from now.  As we wrap up another Church year here this month, the focus on Christ’s return, the resurrection of all flesh, and the Paradise that awaits is our constant theme.

So the theme of today’s sermon comes from Paul’s final words in our text today, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Encourage one another with the resurrection, with the Last Day, with the hope that only we and all the other disciples of Jesus have of a life that knows no end, and where sin and death are remembered no longer.

Now, when we hear that word, “encourage,” we are quick to think of comfort.  And this is true and right and good.  These last eight months have been devastating, an out and out beatdown where the boxing referee forgot to blow his whistle and stop the pummeling.  And even now as we look upward and outward, our ears are ringing with not only our own suffering but also the suffering of our neighbors.  And when you’re caught in that moment, it can truly feel like it will never end.

But it does.  It will.  This present moment of suffering does not endure.  You have Christ.  You have forgiveness.  You have the resurrection promise.  Even if this moment that has brought so many to the point of cowering inside their homes behind locked doors carries out its threat and brings an end to your earthly breaths, we do not grieve as the world grieves.  They are the ones right now who are lost and without a hope.  As you look at the events of this past week, they are the ones seeking to grasp for any sense of power and control that they can find, hoping that it will ease their fear and despair for just a moment.  Their world has been turned upside-down and they have no idea how to respond.  They don’t know what to do next.

But we do.  We know our hope.  We know that no matter how bad things may seem today, that the words of the Psalmist (30:5) are true: “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”  We have the promises of Christ.  We even have Christ.

That word “encouragement” doesn’t just mean “comfort.”  As you can see in the root of the word, to encourage someone is to give them courage.  Paul urges us to use these words, this resurrection promise and the hope of Christ’s return on that Last Day, to encourage one another, to give one another the courage to stop cowering, to step outside of our comforts, and to carry forth with the very same task that Jesus gave to His disciples on the day of His ascension, “You will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Imagine, if you will, the soldier on the battlefield who has been told that he is invincible.  That no matter what his enemy did to him, nothing could harm him.  We can picture that very same thing as we see the disciples.  It takes encouragement, it takes a little experience, to gain that confidence.  While he may be tentative at first, not really sure that it wasn’t just too good to be true, with each passing blow that he endures, he is encouraged.  He grows bolder and bolder and bolder, coming to know without a doubt that he can get the job done and that he has nothing to fear.

These words.  This hope.  That promise.  These things encourage us.  While our sinful flesh may not actually be invincible, Jesus is.  Two weekends ago, right here in this very place and space, we sang together these words:

“Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us, We tremble not, we fear no ill; They shall not overpow’r us.  This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none.  He’s judged; the deed is done; One little word can fell him.

The Word they still shall let remain Nor any thanks have for it; He’s by our side upon the plain With His good gifts and Spirit.  And take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth.”

– “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” LSB 656

In our preschool here last week, my daughter’s teacher taught her to memorize a new verse.  And she has repeated it again and again to us at home, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus Our Lord, Romans 8:39.”  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this is you!  You are His.  His promises are yours.  You will live forever.  This is why we gather as a Church.  This is what the Divine Service is for: God serves us.  He encourages you here in this space with His Word and Sacrament.  He uses His own body and blood, both to forgive your sins, but also to give you the strength and the courage to fight on. 

And there is a fight to be fought.  The mission Christ gave to us as His Church still stands. On this day, your neighbor is afraid.  Afraid of a pandemic; afraid of a republican king or a democrat king.  Your neighbors are hurting and grieving and they don’t know what to do or where to turn.  But we do, because we have hope.  The disciples of old were encouraged to speak the truth of God even if it meant their death in this world.  We do not fear because the One true King of all of this has claimed you as His own, and has promised even to raise you from the dead.  And so now, you can use these words, His Words, to regularly, even daily, encourage one another, both to be comforted in our grief, but also to be emboldened to fight against the devil’s schemes with the very words of Christ Himself, the eternal gospel given to save. 

We Glorify Thee

Revelation 14:6-7

Reformation Sunday

October 25, 2020

Focus: Jesus died on the cross to forgive the sins of all people.

Function: That the hearers share the gospel with others.

Structure: .

We Glorify Thee

            Our first reading today was from the ever-confusing book of Revelation.  And it marks the shortest reading in the entire three year lectionary system.  I didn’t count words, that’s just going off of how many verses we read in church together.  It’s the only two-verse reading in the entire rotation.  And there’s good reason for its brevity.  The verses just before and the verses just after cause commotion among Christians today, and would only distract us from theme of the day, the theme of the Reformation.

            We gather here today to celebrate the rediscovery of the eternal gospel.  We gather here today, at a Lutheran congregation, because we rejoice to have the fullness of the gospel that that angel went out to proclaim.

            The gospel is simply this: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross to forgive the sins of all people and He rose again to conquer death for us as well.  You are forgiven.  You get to live in Paradise forevermore.  That’s Jesus’ gift to you.  That’s the gospel.  Nothing else.  And it truly is the sweetest and most beautiful thing in all of creation.

            To put it as simply as I can, the verses before our text today speak of those people who hear the gospel and believe it.  While the verses that follow the text speak of those people who reject the gospel and choose to side with the devil instead.  You could say the text is surrounded by good and evil.

            That then is where the struggles we see in the Church over this book come in.  We try to treat it as a book of clues, pointing us to the final days and the final battle between good and evil.  But that’s not what this book is about.  The central theme of Revelation is this: Christ is the victor. Jesus has already conquered sin, death, and the devil, and He’s done it for you so that you don’t have to.  This book is not written to puzzle you, but to encourage you to wait in these last days trusting in Christ, placing your hope in Christ alone, knowing the good news of the eternal gospel, that no matter what happens to you here and now, no matter how much you may suffer in this present moment, you are His.  And He has saved you.

            In this vision, the apostle John sees an angel, a messenger of God, going out to proclaim this good news to the entire creation.  “To every nation and tribe and language and people.”  No one is to be excluded from hearing the good news.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like.  Your social status and rank is irrelevant.  How many zeroes are attached to your name and bank account means nothing before God.  Born into poverty or a mansion.  Black or white.  Jew or Gentile.  Christ died for you.  And together we rejoice that you are seated here today, that you have heard this good news proclaimed, and that the Holy Spirit has given you faith, and you now cling to the promises of Christ like superglue on a hand. 

You are the people in the verses before our text who heard the gospel and believed.  You are the Church, the Bride of Christ.  This text now teaches us that the angel’s proclamation is meant to bring about three things in us as members of His Church.  We are to fear God, give Him glory, and worship Him.

Unfortunately, as we cling to Christ, sin has a deathgrip upon us.  As long as we remain in this world, the battle of sin and death rages onward.  And we find ourselves resisting each and every one of these three realities for the Christian.

We are to fear God.  And yet, how many of you (raise hand) have heard it said that you do not need to fear God because He is loving? (pause so they can raise hands)  We water down the fear of God and call it “respect” instead.  But the authors of Scripture knew the Greek word for “respect,” and they often chose not to use it.  Proverbs 9:10 says that “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”  It’s a good thing to fear God, as His righteous judgment daily reminds us of our sins, which in turn then daily points us to the gospel, to our need for our Savior.  The fear of God daily points us to Him, to His forgiveness that Christ won for us.  It daily calls us out of our sinful nature, to gather together with Him as His Church.  Without a healthy fear of God, we’re in danger of shipwrecking our faith as many have done in centuries past.

We are called to glorify God.  Let me invite you to ponder something for a moment.  What are your goals in life?  You can think of past goals that you’ve had, or present goals you have now, but take a moment, and think of a few. (Pause for 15 seconds).  Who is at the center of the goals in your mind?  If it’s you, you’re doing it wrong.  I remember when I was a kid, my dream was to become a goaltender in the NHL someday.  That goal in itself isn’t the problem; it’s the why that was.  Fame.  Glory.  The rush of a roaring crowd.  Money coming out the ears.  We’re really good at thinking about ourselves. 

I am an expert in making my life all about me.  And so are you of you.  And that’s the problem.  We’re not here for success, a career, or happiness. We’re here to serve.  And so if my goal had been to be an NHL goaltender because I was good at it, and could use the platform, the opportunities to interact with fans, and the interviews to speak of the gospel, and use the large income to serve the community around me, that’s a healthy goal.  We aren’t here to serve ourselves.  We are called to glorify God, that means, to lift Him up that others may see what He has done for them, too.

And lastly, we are called to worship Him.  Yet again, in the sinful nature, this struggle is real.  Many of us here today don’t even want to be here.  We don’t want to spend so much of our time listening to the Word of God for us.  We don’t want to give up our precious time to receive the gift of forgiveness that He has to give to us at His altar through His own most precious body and blood. 

If we were to shake things up, and offer worship every day here at the church, Christ’s body and blood here for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith that you may fight back against the temptations of the sinful self, the world, and the devil for yet another day, how many would come?  (Pause for impact).  What does it mean for us then, and for our faith, when we hear in Revelation 7(:15) that we will worship the Lord day and night in His temple in Paradise?  Why are so many who call themselves Christians upset to see governments closing the doors of churches during the pandemic when they couldn’t even be bothered to go through those very same doors when they were open?

The Law cuts close to home, doesn’t it?  It certainly cuts me.  And yet, we have the gospel!  For all of our sins, for treating God like a candy dispenser that’s there for us whenever we need a sin fix, for pridefully living this life for ourselves rather than pointing others to the God who sacrificed His life for them, and for thinking that being in God’s Word gets in the way of living our lives, for these and all of our sins, the angel’s proclamation holds firm: Christ bled and died for us.  Christ forgives us.  Christ restores us.  He lives that we may live.  And this is most certainly true.

And the angel’s message becomes our message.  It’s now our job, our role, as the Bride of Christ, to share this gospel, this good news to every nation and tribe and language and people.  We’re to do this together as a church, together in our families, and even individually.  This is life’s aim for the Christian.  Look to the men and women of the New Testament.  Read their stories.  Read the stories of the martyrs throughout the centuries.  Learn from their examples that we’re not here for self-care and self-love, but to care for God’s creation and His creatures.  We can learn from them what it means to take up our cross and follow Him.

I don’t have this figured out.  In fact, I’m certain I’m awful at.  I ask you to pray for me and for my family that in the months to come we may learn not just a head knowledge of how to live our lives for our neighbors, but that in His Holy Spirit, God would lead us to do it.  That is a sin that has plagued my conscience for a long time.  I have confessed it again and again, and rejoice that Christ has always forgiven me abundantly.  And now, may the good Lord of heaven and earth and all that is in them, reform this heart and this mind to bear fruit for His kingdom.  May we all so pray for one another.

The Lord is at Hand

Philippians 4:4-13

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

October 11, 2020

Focus:  God delivers us from all the suffering we endure in this sin-filled world.

Function:  That the hearers trust and rejoice in the Lord in every circumstance.

Structure:  Providing Context to a Famous Verse.

The Lord is at Hand

            Today’s epistle reading ends with one of the most famous verses in all of Christendom, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  Unfortunately, that also makes it one of the most badly abused verses in God’s Word.  You may stroll into a gym for a workout and see it posted on the wall.  You may hear a neighbor talk about it as they really hope to land that new job or that promotion.  Athletes use it to cheer themselves on to victory.  It has become a catchall phrase Christians use for encouragement of any kind and in any moment in their lives.  But is that what God had in mind when He inspired the Apostle Paul to write those words?  To figure that out, let’s look at the context together.

            Over these past four weeks now, we’ve been reading our way through Paul’s letter to the Christian church in the Roman city of Philippi.  This was a noteworthy city in the empire, as it was the preferred place for military veterans to retire with their families.  That gave it prominence and status in the empire.  The people in this city dressed like Romans, spoke their language, used their currency.  They were proud to be Roman.

Paul writes this letter somewhere around 60 AD as the Roman persecution of the Christian Church has begun under Emperor Nero’s leadership and will only intensify in the years that follow.  In fact, one of the most important contextual details of this book of the Bible is that Paul is in prison in Rome as he writes it.

In the opening chapter, Paul described how his imprisonment in Rome has actually served not to hinder the gospel, but to advance it.  The whole imperial guard has heard the gospel from Paul.  Other Christians have seen what Paul endured and it gave them the courage and the boldness to witness to Christ in whatever their present circumstance.

This is also where we hear Paul’s famous line (Philippians 1:21), “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”  Paul knows that if he dies there in Rome, he gets to be with Christ, which is by far better than anything this life has to offer.  But if the Lord spares him and allows him to go on living, he gets to continue to serve his neighbor and bear witness to Christ.

The following weekend, we saw Paul encourage us to be humble, not to think highly of ourselves, but instead to become like Christ, who humbled Himself, becoming our servant, even to the point of death on the cross.  Paul urges us to be humble and to serve others with however many more days we may have in our lives, instead of serving the self.  In this way, we will shine like lights in the darkness, bringing the good news of Christ to sinners everywhere.

Last weekend’s chapter 3 warned Christians to be on their guard against false teachers, and specifically that giant false teaching that says we are somehow saved by our own status, O prideful Romans/Americans, or that we are saved by our heritage or our good deeds.  Paul had it all, and yet labeled everything “skubala,” “poop.”  That which the body casts out because it’s worthless.  We are saved only by the righteousness of God Himself, which is given to us as a gift.

But rather than end by saying we do absolutely nothing, Paul said that there is one thing he does do – forgetting what lies behind him (skubala!) and pressing on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Paul lives his life in service to the Lord and his neighbor.  And Paul then encourages any Christian reading this letter to imitate him and others like him.  To be humble, enduring any and all suffering for the name of Christ, as in doing so we get to share the gospel and the hope that strengthens us in and through the suffering of that day with the very people who are afflicting us.  Paul lives his life and encourages us to live our lives as one who’s citizenship isn’t Roman or American, but in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That invitation to imitate Paul shows up again in three ways in verses 4-6 of chapter 4 today.  Rejoice in the Lord always, be gentle with everyone, and do not be anxious about anything.  And the root of all three of those things is the same: the Lord is at hand.

Remember again, Paul is in prison as he writes these words: “rejoice in the Lord always.”  Why?  Being in prison doesn’t seem like a good reason to rejoice.  Whatever suffering you might be living through in the present moment probably doesn’t feel like a good reason to rejoice.  But it is!  This goes back to the idea he said before, “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Should your suffering claim your life, steal the breath from your bones, leaving you dead, what has it actually accomplished?  Has death won?  Has it actually harmed you in any way?  No!  It hasn’t!  Instead, you would then be resting in Christ, no longer suffering, no longer sinning, but waiting for that upward call on the Last Day, when the body is raised again, and you live with Christ and in Christ forevermore.  To be with Christ is not a thing to be feared or avoided.

And should you continue to live on and endure that suffering of this present moment, the Lord is at work through you for the sake of those around you.  Paul endured suffering and in doing so shared the gospel with the imperial guard, and eventually with Caesar himself.  You in your suffering today, endure that suffering for the sake of your neighbor.  You are called to be gentle or reasonable towards all people, so that they may see you and come to know you and wonder just why you don’t give up.  “Why won’t you quit?!”  “Why don’t you hate me?!”

In the second century, there was an elder of the church in the city of Smyrna named Polycarp, a man who had studied under the apostle John.  Christianity was still very much illegal, and the punishment for a Christian could result in their death in the Roman Colosseum.  That’s what came one day for Polycarp.  But as the soldiers banged on his door, he didn’t flee, or cower, or fight, or spit in their faces, or recant of his faith to bow before the idol of Caesar and live for a few more days.  He welcomed them into his home, offering them a meal at his family’s table.  And when they had finished, he willingly went with them. 

As they eventually led him into the arena for execution, when they went to bind him to the stake for burning, he told them there was no need for the binding.  He would gladly stand there and endure it.  History has recorded some of his last words.  He spoke to the soldiers and officials, “How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior?  You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.”  And then he prayed in their presence, “I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”  Believe it or not, those quotes can be found in a nineteenth century children’s book called “My First Book of Saints.”

The Lord is at hand.  His kingdom has come near.  We know the truth about creation, about our sin, about our fall, and the judgment that we have rightly earned for ourselves.  We don’t sugarcoat it; we don’t try to pretend that our sins don’t matter.  They do.  But this knowledge of the depth of our wickedness points us to the depth of God’s love that He would send us a Savior.

There isn’t a person in this world that doesn’t recognize the brokenness and the hurt that surrounds them.  Even those we think live like kings: they know the pain of loneliness and despair just as the rest of us do.  But God took on flesh, the King of heaven and earth came down to be with us.  Immanuel.  He knew our sins, and He knew the end that awaited us.  And so He chose to act.  He chose to be merciful.  He chose to humbly suffer on our behalf.  Jesus Christ came into a world of sinners and suffered immensely at the hand of sinners, not because of pride or love of self, but because of His great love for you.

He didn’t do that for Himself (pointing to the cross).  He didn’t take the crown of thorns, the lashings, the spitting, and the beatings because He has some sick and perverse pleasure in experiencing pain.  Every stripe was for your good.  Every wound was to heal you.  Every drop of His blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.

And while we know and rejoice that He came to give us forgiveness, we also know and rejoice that on the third day He broke the bonds of death.  He shattered the grave forever!  And we know what this means for us.  We know that there is a Paradise that Christ our Lord is preparing for us even now.  And we know that He has promised that He is coming soon.

The Lord is at hand.  And so we rejoice, in all circumstances.  Because we know the Lord’s promises.  We know that for us to live is Christ and to die is gain.  We are gentle and reasonable with everyone we interact with, because each person is a fellow sinner who is in need of the gospel.  And by our actions, by our suffering, by our endurance, we speak hope into lives that are otherwise filled with nothing but despair.  We shine light into the midst of darkness.  And we are anxious and worrisome over nothing.  Because God is faithful; God provides for His people; and He is with us no matter what is happening in the moment.

Those short and simple words, “The Lord is at hand,” truly spur us on to forget what lies behind and press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  This then is what that famous verse of Philippians 4:13 is really all about: contentment and endurance no matter what the day may bring.  As Paul suffers for the sake of sharing the gospel, he says:

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

As we live in a culture of shifting sands, watching persecution grow and threaten the comforts that we have previously enjoyed, we imitate Paul.  We can endure all things because Christ gives us the strength, because He is the strength as we fix our eyes on Him and the promise He has made to you of a life that never ends.  And now, may “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding… guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Amen.

Power or Authority?

Matthew 21:23-27

Proper 21

October 1, 2017

September 27, 2020 (edited for the people of God at St. Matthew)

Focus:  God has given all authority unto His Son.

Function:  That the hearers lead by serving.

Structure:  .

 

Power or Authority?

 

Concordia Publishing House has a book called Pastors and Elders: Caring for the Church and One Another.  In the very first chapter of the book, Rev. Timothy Mech identifies a difference between power and authority.

Have you ever thought about that?  Have you ever thought that power and authority were different words?  I think for most of us, we treat them as synonyms, as though they mean the same thing.

But in this book, Pastor Mech defines the two differently.  Power is when you strive or struggle to be able to exert yourself over someone.  Put another way, it’s when you lead and act by your own abilities.  Authority is when you lead by serving.  When you’re working through power, you are fighting to put yourself above someone else.  When you’re working through authority, you are leading people in the task that’s been assigned to you by someone else already.

This then is the struggle that we see in the text.  As Jesus seeks to use His authority, that is to lead the people by serving them the way God the Father has instructed Him to do, as He tries, the chief priests and the elders try to flex their power.

Really, this is all of Jesus’ ministry, and continues even to this day, but to understand it better, we really need to look at all of chapter 21 of Matthew’s account of the gospel.  The chapter begins with Palm Sunday, with Jesus’ triumphal entry as He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Don’t underestimate the weight of that move.  Jesus is fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy of the coming King, the coming Messiah.  If He’s seeking power, this is a bold statement, and one that’s not lost on the religious leaders.  But which is it? Power or authority?

From there, Jesus then enters the temple, and cleanses it.  This is one of those moments of anger for Christ, as the religious leaders had made a power play in turning the temple into a market for their own profits.  We see Jesus overturning tables and rebuking the leaders of the people.  Power or authority?

The next morning we get the account of Jesus cursing the fig tree.  Power or authority?

Then we come to our text for the day.  As Jesus reenters the temple, the religious leaders aren’t pleased.  And they’ve taken their time to come up with a trap for Jesus.  “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  If He answers that God gave Him the authority because as Peter said, He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then they will have Him for blasphemy.  If He answers anything else, then they will have Him for breaking the law of man and of Judaism.

But Christ’s wisdom is unending.  As He freed Himself from their traps before, so He does again.  And this time, He not only frees Himself, He turns the trap back on them.  And not just once, but three times.  “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell Me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things.  The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

And the religious leaders already know He’s got them.  They discuss it together, but they know they can’t answer.  If they say from God, then why didn’t they listen?  If they say from man, the people will be angry and turn against them because they’d loved John as a prophet.  And so they pass.  And Jesus could have left the conversation there, because He’s free.  He’s set Himself up to be able to continue to teach.

But He doesn’t stop there.  He proceeds to throw two parables at them.  The first is the Parable of the Two Sons, which goes like this:

“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”

 

These religious leaders were the ones above all who should be following God and leading by His authority.  But they aren’t.  They’ve rejected God and are leading by their own power.  Jesus has them.  He’s spoken of the good of the people and the failure of the leaders.  But again, Jesus continues:

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.

 

Jesus has now not only called out the religious leaders, He’s condemned them.  He has highlighted their guilt and their corruption and has laid upon them the full weight of God’s law.  And they get it, they know He’s talking about them and their thirst for power.  But even in all their anger, there’s nothing they can do, at least not until a couple of days later when Judas Iscariot sells them Jesus’ resting place for 30 pieces of silver.

We see this tension among ourselves.  This struggle of power and authority exists in all of our communities.  It exists in government, as people lord themselves over their community.  Even the elected officials are often driven by power and will do anything to keep that power as long as they can.

We see it in the racial tensions in this land today.  We see two completely opposite ways of thinking violently clashing against one another as they fight a fight of power.  Power will not help this struggle, which is precisely what we are witnessing happening all around us.  We need humble servants, willing to lead by serving and loving their neighbor.

We see it in marriage.  Here we could spend weeks looking at Genesis 1-3 and Ephesians 5, at the ordering of God’s creation, and how in our sin, we’ve broken that order.  But in the shorthand for this sermon, God gave the husband the authority to lead his family by serving.  And in the fall, as part of the woman’s punishment, she will try to steal her husband’s position and use power to do it.  And in return, the husband, instead of leading by serving, by the authority rightly given to him by God, the husband will lead by power.  This is why marriages hurt.  This is why marriages are broken.  Because sin destroys.

But as I had you do before, having you acknowledge that in all Jesus was doing, He wasn’t acting out of power, but out of authority.  Let’s see if you can place this quote: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.”  Pause.  It’s the very end of Matthew’s account of the gospel.  ALL AUTHORITY has been given to Jesus, by the Father.  He rightly leads this world as Lord and as Savior by serving His creation.

And He served His creation by loving us so dearly, so overwhelmingly, so emphatically, that He took of Himself, He in His authority, He submitted Himself to the people in power.  He submitted Himself to the religious leaders, He submitted Himself to the Roman leaders, He submitted Himself to the cross and to death.

It is in His authority, it is in His leading by serving, that Jesus saves us.  That He conquers death, He conquers earthly powers.  He conquers the sin that overwhelms our families, our communities, and our nations.  The struggles for power between husband and wife are overcome in humble service.  The struggles between the races of this earth are overcome when we humbly listen to one another and serve one another.  The struggles between government and civilian are overcome when governments humble themselves and lead by serving, and when civilians humble themselves and respect the authority given to those who would lead them.

All of that sin, all of that brokenness is restored in Christ.  And while we will only see shades of it in the here and now, we will be made perfect in His new creation.  Which is why Matthew emphasized the end of this gospel account by quoting our Lord saying:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

 

Jesus entrusts His authority to us.  He encourages us to lead our neighbor by serving our neighbor.  He encourages pastors to lead His people by serving them with His words of forgiveness and life in the Sacraments.  He even encourages all people in positions of leadership to lead well by serving, as we see spelled out for us in the fourth commandment.  The Explanation of the Small Catechism states it this way:

“Who are parents and other authorities?” Parents are fathers, mothers, and guardians; other authorities are all those whom God has placed over us at home, in government, at school, at the place where we work, and in the church.”

 

It is in our sinful nature to cling to power.  But it is in the very nature of God to lay down power to love and to serve.  Jesus Christ was and is fully God.  And yet He willingly laid that down, the power that He rightly holds, He lays down to humbly serve us, to use His authority to rebuke and to forgive His people.  On account of His crucifixion and His resurrection, we live.  And while we live, we have the authority to humbly serve one another.

 

 

Forgiveness is Disarming

Genesis 50:15-21

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 17, 2017

September 13, 2020 (edited for the Church in St. Matthew)

 

Focus:  God forgives even our guilt.

Function:  That the hearers bear no grudges, either of their own guilt or another’s against them.

Structure:  Sermon Outline by Rev. Paul Philp.

 

Forgiveness is Disarming

 

Our text today comes from the Old Testament reading out of the book of Genesis.  We find an account of eleven brothers who expect death.  They expect to receive the death penalty at the hands of the man second in command over all of Egypt.

Many years before, when Joseph was still just a boy, he started to have dreams of authority, dreams that said that he would one day see his brothers bow down at his feet.  For one of the youngest of twelve sons, that was probably pretty enticing.  And he certainly gloated about it, on more than one occasion.

And while his father, Jacob, was perplexed by these ideas, his brothers weren’t very pleased.  Dad’s favoritism surely didn’t help, nor did that beautiful and luxurious cloak that dad gave to Joseph.  So, over the course of time, they grew to hate their brother; they came to despise Joseph.

Until one day when they saw an opportunity.  They were working out in the fields, and saw Joseph approaching and began to dream up ways to get rid of him.  To put an end to his gloating, to his favored status in the home.

At first, they were going to kill him.  But the oldest, the heir of the house, Reuben, convinced his brothers to spare Joseph.  And so, instead of killing him, they lowered him into a cistern, a giant hole in the ground, a well.

The brothers then sat down for a meal, and as they were eating, they noticed a caravan off in the distance. A travelling group of slave traders related to their great uncle Ishmael.  The Scriptures don’t say where Reuben was, just that he wasn’t there and wasn’t aware.  And so, in his absence, the brothers decided to make a little coin, to make a profit off of their hatred.  Rather than kill Joseph, they could both get rid of him, and make some money.  It was a win-win, for them at least.

Obviously, they never expected to see Joseph again.  Nor did they care.  Just moments before they had been willing to kill him, so they certainly didn’t care what happened to him as a slave in some other land.  So from the perspective of the brothers, we can skip over most of the life of Joseph.

Joseph is sold as a slave to Potiphar of Egypt and then winds up in prison.  After being God’s spokesman to Pharaoh in the interpretation of some dreams, Joseph is given a position of authority, as second in command over the land of Egypt.  He’s tasked with managing the abundance of food during their seven years of feasting, saving a portion each year so that the people would still have food when the seven years of famine struck.

As those famine years began, food grew scarce.  And not just in Egypt, but even the surrounding lands, including the land of Canaan where Joseph’s father Jacob and the rest of his brothers lived.  So Jacob sends the brothers to Egypt, not just once, but twice to buy food for their family. And it isn’t until their second visit that Joseph reveals himself to them.

How would you think they reacted?  Having just seen their brother’s face, knowing what they’d done to him, and now the position of power and authority that he had over them?  The food was his.  He literally was in the position to watch them starve to death or simply have them killed.

But that’s not what Joseph does.  Instead, Joseph forgives them and feeds them.  He even invites them to move down to the neighboring land of Goshen with the hopes of seeing his father again.  It’s been a good solid twenty years at least.

After several more years pass, Jacob dies.  And the brothers fear Joseph, again.  They doubt his forgiveness to them.  They question if he wasn’t just being nice to them for the sake of dad, to keep the family together.  And now, with dad no longer there to protect them, they feared Joseph would get revenge against them for their wickedness.

That’s our text today.  They come up with a ridiculous lie to get Joseph to forgive them.  Their guilt from sins decades ago still haunts them.  For no reason.  Joseph has already forgiven his brothers.  And even now, they still live in that state of forgiveness.  There’s no grudge.  There’s no plot of revenge.  But once again, Joseph had to speak kindly to them and comfort them, reassuring them of his forgiveness for them.

There are multiple ways to see God’s law in this text.  The first is guilt.  Guilt is the result of a conscience, of God writing His law, His commands upon our hearts.  And so when we sin, when we break God’s law, failing in our vocations, abandoning our responsibilities, we feel guilt.

This is what the brothers wrestled with, as do we.  We can all think of things in our past, mistakes made, friends hurt, neighbors neglected.  And most of the time, we aren’t really capable of forgetting our sins.  And the devil and our sinful flesh love to use this against us.

Many of us here today can identify one or more of those things that still make us feel guilty.  For the words you said to your parents as you rejected their authority.  For the pain you inflicted on your friend when you betrayed their trust.  Even for dumb sins we did decades ago.  We still hold onto that guilt.

Another law angle on this same topic, though, is: why?  What did the brothers actually fear?  They feared Joseph’s retaliation.  They couldn’t trust the forgiveness of their brother.  All too often in our lives, we’ve earned that distrust.

We’ve held the grudges.  Sometimes for decades.  Sometimes dividing families so that they never speak again.  And so the person who feels the guilt of their sin fears coming to us.  They fear confessing their sin to us because we’ve held it against them before.  Because we’ve acted on revenge before.  Because we’ve heard the words, “I’m sorry, please forgive me,” and we’ve rejected them.  Try this on for size: think of someone who has confessed their sin to you.  How do you view them now?  What emotions come up?  Do you see them as Christ sees them?  Do you see them as Christ sees you?  Do you see them as a forgiven child of God and your brother or your sister in Christ?  If you don’t, you’re still holding a grudge and you haven’t forgiven them.

Marriages die here.  Relationships of all kinds die here.  When we choose to hold on to our betrayal and our hurt, we sin against our neighbor.  In our pride, we only furthered, only deepened the pain and the anguish and the guilt and the despair of our neighbor.

That’s what the brothers expected: revenge, punishment.  They expected it because it was what they were used to.  That was the way things work.  And it’s still the way things work in this broken world.

But not before God.  Joseph is a type, a foreshadowing, of Christ.  The way he responded to his brothers, to their wickedness, and even to their guilty conscience was the way that Christ responds to us.  Joseph endured the pain and the loss and the suffering of his brothers’ betrayal.  He spent years as a slave, many likely in miserable conditions.  But in doing so, he wasn’t plotting his revenge.  He forgave his brothers.

Forgiveness is disarming.  As second in command over the world’s superpower, Joseph laid down his sword, his right to revenge.  Forgiveness is laying down your sword, your right to revenge.  It is self-sacrificing as you lay yourself down at the feet of another.  Forgiveness makes the relationship whole again, and comes at the price of being open to being hurt again.  As commander of all the angel armies in creation, with the full authority of God, Jesus laid down His sword.  Christ not only laid down His sword, He allowed us to pick it up and strike Him down with it.

Christ endured our betrayal.  It was our betrayal, our sin, our guilt that sent Him, willingly, to the cross.  He didn’t seek out revenge, He didn’t seek to get even, He only muttered the words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Jesus Christ in His sacrifice for us overcomes our sins.  He took them from us.  He bore them upon Himself.  We are free.  We are freed from our grudges that we hold against others.  We can give them up.  Like Joseph, we are free to forgive one another and to break the shackles of hatred and despair.  We are free to be reconciled with all people.  Christ did that for us.

Still yet, it’s not just our grudges that He forgives.  It’s all of our sins.  And so that guilt that you’ve been carrying around since you were seven, that guilt is on Him.  He carries that burden for you.  You don’t have to.  If you’re still carrying it, pray.  Ask the Lord to take it from you.  Ask the Lord to grant you reconciliation, to bring forgiveness into your broken relationship, with whoever that may be.  Ask the Lord to wipe away all grudges and all guilt.  Because He has and He does.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, hear the beautiful words of the Apostle Paul as he greeted the church in Corinth:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in Him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord.”  In Christ, you and I are guiltless.  He took it, all of it, for us.  For you and for me.  As Joseph’s brothers came to realize that his forgiveness was genuine, and they trusted in him again, so we too, can know that in Christ’s death and resurrection, His forgiveness of all our sins is genuine.  We are indeed guiltless.  And that is how He sees us.

 

But One Flag

Romans 13:1-10

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 6, 2020

 

Focus:  God alone saves.

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

Structure:  Bible study.

 

But One Flag

 

It’s an election year again.  The mudslinging is everywhere, as though it ever disappears.  People are politicized, entrenched into the muck and chaos on one of two sides.  You either love the government or hate them.  There’s so much hatred and so much disagreement all around us.  There’s uproar over anything our governing officials do.

Our text from Paul writing to the Romans is about government.  It gives us the opportunity to learn what God teaches us in His Word about our governing authorities and our relationship to them.  As Christians, how are we to view them?  How are we to interact with them?  So today, our sermon is more of a wider Bible study.  Other texts of note on this topic include 1 Samuel 8, John 19:10-11, Psalm 118:9, Psalm 146:3, and Acts 5:29b.

Let’s begin with our Romans text that Pastor Otto read just a few minutes ago.  What’s Paul’s primary aim in this text?  What is God teaching us here?  The heart of this letter is all about righteousness.  First and foremost, it’s God’s righteousness for us, that He makes His perfection ours in Jesus Christ.  But the ending chapters of the letter focus on our righteousness in this world, how we are supposed to live among our neighbors in this present moment.  The aim of verses 1-7 is that we would be subject to our governing officials, whoever those may be.

But what does that mean?  What does it look like to be subject to someone else?  God’s Word teaches us that we are to look at our governing officials as ministers of God, servants of God.  He has called them into their particular office that they may care for His creation.  In some ways, it’s the same task we have: care for creation, care for one another.  But their role is more specific, it includes the greater task of caring for the entire community.  Whereas you and I can focus on loving an individual neighbor, they must focus on loving the whole neighborhood.

And it’s our God-given job to obey them and do what they tell us.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a law, a command, an ordinance, or a request.  Or whatever word you want to use.  If our government tells us to do something, we are subject to them.  We do what they ask, or tell.

I imagine that has many of you wondering if this applies when the government is evil.  And to answer that, we have to go back to the Old Testament, to the fundamental government text in Scripture: 1 Samuel 8.  Now this text never appears in the lectionary, and it’s buried in the midst of an Old Testament history book, so it’s possible that many people here today have never read it before. For that very reason, I’ll read part of it for you now, starting at verse four:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to Yahweh. And Yahweh said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel told all the words of Yahweh to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

 

As I read the list of God’s warnings, many of them should sound very familiar to you.  We see in the very institution of earthly government that it never should’ve happened.  We were never meant to be governed by other men.  God alone is to be our King.  So whatever government we have is part of this dying and broken, sin-riddled world.  There is no perfect earthly government, no not one.

God works in mysterious ways.  He gives governors the power of the sword, using one sinful nation to punish another, using one sinner to cast judgment on another.  But, we all deserve it.  We’re all guilty; none of us are perfect, no not one.

In light of this, it doesn’t matter who our governing authorities are.  President Obama. President Trump.  Kim Jong-Un.  God’s Word teaches us to treat them all the same.  And that again is to be subject to them, and to honor them.  And the reason for it is simple: as Paul says, “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  The authority of the government, no matter what kind of government it is, comes from God.  And we should note that God gives authority to the person, not a piece of paper, no matter how much Americans may love their Constitution.

Jesus says this same thing to Pontius Pilate in John 19.  As Pilate is about to execute Him, to execute God Himself, Jesus says “You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above.”  And we don’t just rise up the chain of command in Rome with Jesus’ statement, but all the way to the top, to God Himself.  Pilate’s authority came from God the Father.  And this Roman’s letter we read today, Paul wrote this to the Christians living in Rome under the Roman emperor in 55 AD.  That same Roman emperor, a man named Nero, would one day execute Paul and Peter as he brought immense persecution on the people of God.  And yet, Paul tells us very specifically that we are to honor the governing authority.  And a few years later, right in the midst of the heat of that persecution, Peter writes the same thing.

Another thing we learn from Scripture is that our governing authorities are not our enemies, no matter how bad they may seem.  They’re fellow sinners, in need of the Gospel just as much as we are.  And they will have to give an account on the day of judgment for all that they have done.  Paul says this in Romans 14:12, that we all must give an account.  Whatever God has entrusted to you, you must tell Him, the Lord of the universe, to His face, what you’ve done with it.  And so even though the preacher to the Hebrews was talking about our pastors, Hebrews 13:17 is very fitting here as well.  We subject ourselves to our leaders to make it easier for them to some day give an account.  To subject yourself to the government is to love your neighbor.  If you resist them, Paul clearly states you resist God.  But you also make their job harder, and therefore make their account more dangerous to their own body and soul.

Now, do the Scriptures teach that this is true always, that we must always be subject to our governing authority no matter what?  And the answer to that is a slim “no.” There’s just one exception, which we read in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”  If the governing authority commands you to do something that is contrary to a direct command of God, you must resist the governor.  And in doing so, hopefully they see their wrong, repent, and that accounting before God just got easier.  But let’s consider two recent examples: closing churches and masks.

Many churches in the US today are resisting their local governing authority’s command to close, because they believe they have a command from God to gather.  Hebrews 10:24-25 says it quite plainly, that we are not to neglect the gathering.  And as Lutherans, we know all the more that the common union of communion is not possible without “union.”  We receive the body and blood of Christ as the body of Christ gathered together.

And then there’s the mask mandate which has become quite widespread.  I’ll admit to you, I don’t like it.  I don’t like wearing a mask.  I wish you didn’t have to wear them to be here.  But, it doesn’t conflict with a command of God.  So, my governing authority tells me to do it, and I do it.  I wear a mask, because I’m subject to the rulers of Jackson County.  This is, by the way, why I often mention that speeding is a sin.  Governing authorities said don’t do it.

So the Scriptures are really quite clear on the relationship of a Christian to her government. With that one exception, a historical rarity in America, we must obey our governing authority.

But this obedience is limited.  We’re called to be subject to them, not to put our trust in them.  We must remember that every government of man stands as a flawed and dying institution that exists solely because we demanded it in our rebellion against God.  He consented, granting us wicked governments as one way that He would continue to care for us.

Our governing authorities often try to take that role from God.  They seek to be our protectors, providers, and saviors.  Think about a few examples for a moment: do we trust in God to protect us, or the branches of the American military?  Do we trust in God to provide our daily bread, or in the social security system?  Do we trust in God to deliver us from death, or do we join with one of the governors who on Easter Monday of all days looked at the receding pandemic and claimed “The number is down because we brought the number down.  God did not do that.  Faith did not do that”?

God can work through many things to care for us as His people, and thankfully He does.  If the military protects us, if social security aids you, if the pandemic disappears, God is at work.  But we are to put our trust in God the Creator, and not in the tools that He may or may not use.  When we put our trust and faith into the tools, into the works of our own hands, that’s called pride, and it’s extremely dangerous to our faith.

It’s not the job of any earthly government to save us, no matter how much they may believe that it is.  They can’t save us; they can’t even save themselves.  That flag over there in the corner is perishing, just like the government that it represents.  It may be 10 years from now, or 50, or 200, but the day will come when it will perish.  The day will come when every earthly government falls.  History is riddled with them, full of prideful governments falling before their one true King.

For this reason, the ancient hymnal of the Church, which you know as the book of Psalms, sings aloud, “It is better to take refuge in Yahweh than to trust in princes,” (Psalm 118:9); and again, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation,” (Psalm 146:3). We are Christians, followers of Christ, not Republicans or Democrats.  Those parties can’t save this land and they can’t save you.  We’re not really even Americans.  We don’t put our trust or our hope in these things.

The government can’t sustain you forever.  Your years here may be two or a hundred.  But at some point, unless Christ first returns, your body will fail.  As the preacher to the Hebrews puts it, we are citizens of “a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” (Hebrews 11:16).  God, the One who created you and the One who is saving you, has promised you that He is preparing a place for you.  The Lord of the universe, the authority over all authority, has promised you His Paradise where you will live forever, and things like death, suffering, and sorrow will never be seen again.

Not only has He promised it, but He’s won it.  God carried that wooden cross into battle, as His flag, the battle standard of His kingdom.  He marched that flag up to the top of the mount where He would do battle with the devil for all the world to see.

His cross is our flag.  The cross of Christ on which His body hung and His blood flowed freely, is our battle standard.  By His death, we are freed from our sins.  By His resurrection, we know that we will live even if we die.  This is our hope.  This is where our trust lies: in Christ the crucified.

So in short, we obey our earthly governing authorities because their authority comes from God.  We pray for them regularly that God would guide them to lead well.  We subject ourselves to them and do what they ask out of love for them, as they must give an account to God for how they’ve cared for us.  Yet, at the end of the day, we have but one God.  We have but one allegiance, and it lies not in the land in which we live.  Our allegiance is to our citizenship which is in heaven, to Christ our one and only King. He has welcomed you into His kingdom, given you a new citizenship, and provided you sanctuary.

 

More than a Crumb

Matthew 15:21-28

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

August 16, 2020

 

Focus:  God has brought salvation to all peoples.

Function:  That the hearers open the doors of the church and their lives to the “unclean.”

Structure:  Controlling metaphor.

 

More than a Crumb

 

As you just heard the text, I imagine many of you are still dwelling on one specific detail: Jesus just offended this poor, helpless woman.  She’d come to Him for help, and after first ignoring her, He then insults her.  We’re offended for her!  Now, it’s certainly true that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ isn’t politically correct.  Our culture, really the world, has sought to silence the words of Christ long before we even invented cancel culture.  But Jesus isn’t afraid to speak harsh words when He knows they’ll accomplish His purpose.

So it is that we really need to study this text to understand what purpose Jesus could’ve had for speaking to her the way that He did.  And I want to start doing that by shifting your focus and attention.  While we can easily get lost in the account on the word “dog,” I want you to step back for a moment and consider the importance of the “crumb.”  That’s the crucial word in Jesus’ analogy.

When we stop and consider it, crumbs aren’t worth very much.  They’re just specks of leftover food.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the crumbs that fall from your mouth or your beard as you’re eating and land on your lap, or the crumbs that flake off when you’re breaking up the food on your plate, or the crumbs at the bottom of the cereal bag.  They’re all essentially the same.  You can’t fill your stomach on any of them.  And even if the crumb is big enough to give you just a taste, just a glimpse of the deliciousness of the meal, you can’t savor it.  All it does is leaving you wanting more, salivating for a bite of what you can’t have.

Let’s consider the woman now.  As is pretty normal, Matthew doesn’t identify her by name.  Most of Jesus’ miracles occur this way.  The focus isn’t actually on the miracle, or the person, but is on what Christ is doing for His creation.  And so this Canaanite woman approaches Jesus seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter.  That’s all we know about her life and her family.

Well, we know something more about her, something more important about her.  Even before Jesus Himself acknowledges it for us, we can see just how deeply incredible her faith is.  Remember, faith is trust.  To have faith in Jesus means that we trust in Him and in what He is doing to care for us.

This woman, not from God’s people, trusts in Jesus.  She trusts in Him so fully, that she left her child behind and to seek Him.  She trusted that He had the ability to do the impossible, to heal her daughter of an affliction that no earthly doctor could touch.  She calls Him by the divine title that drove the Pharisees to anger, she calls Him “Lord, Son of David.”  She acknowledges that He is the Messiah, the Anointed One who has come to rescue His people.

And then, as Jesus badgers her with this analogy of masters and children, dogs and crumbs, she reveals an even stronger faith.  Just a crumb, just a table scrap, would be enough.  The littlest of Jesus, the leftovers of Jesus would be enough to conquer the demon that afflicts and tortures her child.  She trusts that a crumb can do the impossible, can do what no man can do.

And how does Jesus respond when He hears of her faith?  He gives her the crumb.  He provides the miracle for this mother that she was begging for.  Matthew, one of the twelve disciples present who had wanted her to shut up and go away, Matthew tells us the daughter was healed instantly.

I want to keep the focus on crumbs and faith, but I also want to quickly address the sermon’s opening challenge, the dilemma plaguing your minds and your faith.  We hear the words of Jesus as an insult.  But that was not His intent.

Jesus is God.  God created all of this.  God created all the animals of the earth, including dogs.  Whether they are loved or unloved, in a home or roaming the street, Jesus, the Lord of all creation, cares for and provides for them, too.  The point of His analogy, then, is this: a parent, or a master, prepares a meal for his household, for his family.  When the family gathers at the table to eat, the food is for them.  It’s for the children.  The master hasn’t cooked to feed the dogs; they aren’t the intended recipient of this particular blessing.

Jesus, the Messiah of God’s people, is sent with a particular target.  He has been sent, as He said, “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  She isn’t a child of that house.  The meal hasn’t been prepared for her.  That’s the simple meaning of the analogy.  And it expands pretty rapidly.  Anyone not of the house of Israel would be a dog in this light.  All those Gentile sinners? Dogs.  All the Old Testament peoples of nations like Assyria and Egypt? Dogs.  I am a dog.  And unless you are descended from the patriarch Abraham or the throne of the great King David, you are also a Gentile dog.

But even with all this focus on the word “dog,” again, it’s not the focus of the account.  In its context, the purpose of Jesus’ interactions with this woman is to teach His disciples.  He had just offended the Pharisees by teaching that what defiles a person, what makes someone unclean, is what comes from inside of them, from the heart, the mind, the lips.  It’s our sinfulness, our rebellion against God that makes us unclean.

The Pharisees believed that they were clean, because they were God’s people, descended from the line of Abraham.  And likewise, they would have taught that this Canaanite woman, not born of Abraham, was unclean.  For a Jew to associate with her, including Jesus and His disciples, it would make all of them unclean.

And so Jesus acts and speaks the way He does to teach.  To show His disciples that a faith stronger than their own exists in this woman whom they thought was a nuisance, perhaps even a threat to them.  He ignores her, so they see her press on.  He tells her she’s not a part of the house of Israel, not a child of Abraham, so that they see her quick and faithful plea.  She is persistent, humble, and bows down in worship before her Creator and Savior.

In this way, we again are like her.  Not just dogs, but beggars.  Faithful and persistent beggars.  There is nothing good in us.  All our deeds are like filthy rags.  We are sick, broken, and dying.  We live a life that hurts those around us.  But we repent.  We daily place ourselves at the Master’s feet asking for His crumbs.

And just as it happened then, it happens now.  Jesus didn’t respond to the woman by giving her just a crumb.  He did give her that, but He also gave her so much more!  He gave her the whole feast!

The common bond of all three of today’s texts is the idea that God’s gift of salvation, this Messiah, would not just be for the house of Israel, but for all people!  Isaiah’s mention of foreigners coming in.  Paul’s mention of the Gentiles being grafted in.  And it’s not just here: it’s a frequent and recurring theme throughout His Word.  Whether that’s in Peter’s vision in Acts 10 where He learns that God has called all people clean, or in John 10:16 where Jesus says “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one Shepherd.”

And this Messiah didn’t come to be a Crumb King or a Bread King.  We could enjoy the crumbs of Christ.  We would enjoy seeing the miracles, having such incredible moments happen in our lives.  But in the end, it wouldn’t fill us.  It wouldn’t satisfy.  He came to give us Himself, to give us life.

Jesus gave us all of Himself.  As the bread of life, He laid down His life that we may eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, and live forever!  Not just temporarily healed from a demon, a virus, or the millions of other ailments that afflict us in our sin-filled state.  But permanently, enduringly, rescued from our sins.  Forgiven, restored, made new, made whole.  Not just with the crumbs, but with the whole meal (point to the elements of the Lord’s Supper on the altar).

This theme is important.  Now, what other Gentiles from Scripture can you recall, that God gave not just the crumbs, but so much more? (pause for answers like Namaan, Ruth, the Ninevites in the Old Testament, or the Magi, the Ethiopian eunuch, and the Samaritan woman at the well in the New Testament)  Together, with those men and women, as well as this Canaanite, we are the children of God, partakers in His great feast!

Now, before we wrap up, the actual Law of this texts bears our consideration.  It is the disciples’ response to the woman and her pleas for mercy.  They are agitated, annoyed, angered.  We don’t really get the exact word, but it’s obvious that they think this woman’s presence is beneath them, and they want her to shut up and go away.  Even the disciples, those closest to Christ, were blind to their hatred of others whom God loves.

That Law can be spoken of us as well.  Who here doesn’t have a group of people that they look down upon?  It doesn’t matter their position.  Maybe, like the disciples, you’d rather not spend time around people who aren’t like you.  Maybe, like the Pharisees, you don’t want to be bothered by the poor, the sick, or the sin-ridden outcasts.  Or maybe, like others still, you have come to despise those in positions of authority over you.  While most of us likely won’t admit it to each other out loud, there are people in this world we wouldn’t want to see come through those doors.  That’s the Law of this text.

But God is the God of all people, and as we hear of Him in 1 Timothy 2:4, He desires for all people to be saved.  Just as Jesus taught His disciples by account of this woman, so He still works to reform our sinful flesh, that we would look down on no one around us as unclean or unfit to hear of Jesus and to receive not just His crumbs, but His entire gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation that can be found nowhere else.

It doesn’t matter how they dress, or look, or talk, or act.  Nor does it matter what they’ve done or how much they may have hurt us before.  We are all sinners in need of the full meal of God’s mercy.  And come the end of the Gospel, in Matthew 28, Jesus would send out these same men to every nation under heaven with the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  In the same way, Jesus is sending us out as a church, in our families, as individuals, into the community around us with the good the news that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  And it’s not just crumbs!  We get to enjoy the full spread of the heavenly feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that knows no end.