Third Sunday in Lent – Luke 11:14-28

Slightly edited from 2009.

God doesn’t do fractions. Our heavenly Father deals only with whole numbers. This brings us great joy because most of us hate fractions from our school days studying mathematics. This should bring us great joy as Christians knowing God deals with us in terms of all or nothing, not halves, quarters, or other denominators.

Jesus tells the multitudes after He casts a demon out of a mute man with a demon every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and a house divided against a house falls. Jesus says this in response to those in the multitudes who said in response to casting out the demon He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons. Why would the ruler of the demons cast out one of his own? It doesn’t make sense to say such a thing. But when has any of Christ’s detractors made sense?

This time they might have a point. When people outside the kingdom of heaven peer into the things of God and the people of God they sometimes see a terrible sight. They see a phenomenon that might be called “halfway Christians”. You and I may know a few “halfway Christians”. These people say they believe in God, yet the things they say and do testify that the opposite is true. “Halfway Christians” put on a wonderful show. They say and do Christian things before their neighbor. They know Bible verses quite well. They go to church. Nevertheless, God sees into their heart of hearts and knows that what they do is not from a heart centered in God’s forgiveness. Their heart is centered elsewhere.

Perhaps a “halfway Christian” heart is centered on works-righteousness. They think, “The more I do for God, the more He will see that I am working hard for Him and deserve a spot in heaven”. Such thinking mocks God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ. It makes the preaching of the cross and the resurrection a preaching of foolishness; an example of what we should do rather than what Jesus does for us.

Perhaps a “halfway Christian” sees what a Christian believes or how a Christian lives and calls their doctrine and life “fanaticism”. They believe that a person must accommodate his or herself to the times; let the world set the agenda. It is wise and prudent to keep silent and give in a bit rather than speak out against sin in the public square. After all, it is better to make friends than enemies and plunge oneself into a battle of wills. It is better to take the middle road. Go to church, receive Holy Communion, but keep one’s faith to oneself rather than make trouble, lose friends, and influence people away from the Christian faith rather than toward the Christian faith.

Christians confess the Truth of God’s Word without being afraid because His Word is Truth. Peter and the other apostles confessed before the council in Jerusalem, we ought to obey God rather than men. Peter’s words should be our words too. However, we fear the power of darkness more than the power of light. Therefore, we keep quiet and mind our own business for fear of being called “extremists” or “unloving”.

God dealing with us in fractions is far more unloving than confessing the faith and not being afraid. It would be as if our Lord dying for only 50 percent of Christians, or 25 percent, or even seven percent. If Jesus died and rose again for the sins of one percent of those who believe that He is the Christ, the Son of God, then our Lord’s work for us is meaningless. We would be riddled with doubt, wondering if we qualify for eternal life or if we will be on the outside looking in on Judgment Day.

Satan is the one who tries to make us “halfway Christians”. He loves it when we commit part of our lives to Christ and part of our lives to serving mammon. Jesus says you cannot serve God and mammon. Our allegiance must be for one or the other.

Give up being a halfway Christian not merely for Lent, but for the rest of your earthly life. Jesus didn’t die for some. He died for the sins of the whole world. He died for your sins and for my sins. Jesus is the stronger man who overtakes the strong man, ripping off all the strong man’s armor and divides his spoils.

Though we probably cried when we came out of our mother’s womb, we enter the womb of the Church mute. We cannot speak the praises of God because we do not know Who God is or what God does for us. Our tongues are loosed, our blind eyes made to see, and our ears opened to hear, see, and speak the greatness of the Lord. The finger of God that gave life to everything in the earth; the same finger that brought plagues to the unbelieving Egyptians, touches you in water and the Word of God through Baptism. The finger of God by the power of the Holy Spirit points you to font, pulpit, and altar, the sure and certain places where Jesus Christ promises to deliver the benefits of His death and resurrection: forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.

Where we experience conflict, assault, opposition, we know the kingdom of God is functioning effectively; we know through His Word Christ is effecting great things. When Satan attacks and terrifies us right before death with pictures and terrors of hell, then hear and believe the Gospel that Christ has relieved Satan of his might and has bound the mighty one. Then with our last breath directed towards Christ, we will give the kingdom of darkness one final shove and in eternity never again hear a sound coming from this hellish kingdom. There are no ties, no partial scores in the Kingdom of heaven. God deals with us in whole numbers. Those outside of Christ have nothing but eternal torment. Those with Christ have everything they need: eternal joy and eternal peace with God in His heavenly kingdom swept clean of sin and death forever.

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Second Sunday in Lent – Matthew 15:21-28

Eight seconds. That’s how long a bull rider must stay on a bucking bull in order for the ride to be official. You fall off, it’s over. The bull bucks you, it’s over. Watching a rodeo cowboy ride a bull for eight seconds seems like an eternity. The bull makes all sorts of violent moves. He doesn’t want a human being on his back. If you think eight seconds is an eternity when you aren’t riding the bull, imagine how the cowboy considers the eight seconds he rides the bull. It must feel like eight centuries.

The conversation between Jesus and the Canaanite woman probably lasted longer than eight seconds. However long the moment lasted, like a cowboy riding a bull, the woman hangs on for dear life as she asks Jesus to cast out a demon from her daughter. Jesus, knowing the woman called her Son of David, knowing the woman believed He is Messiah in spite of her being a Canaanite, wants to help. He’s not being cruel in putting her through the cold shoulder treatment. He wants to show how strong this woman’s faith is, especially to us some two thousand years later.

Our prayers last longer or shorter than eight seconds. Sometimes we can only utter a quick “Lord, have mercy”. Other times we hunker down with the Lord and spend much quality time in holy conversation. Rarely, I would wager, have you considered that short or long time in prayer to be similar to riding a rodeo bull. Even the shortest of prayers seem to be an eternity. It could be a miracle that we are able to concentrate through the Lord’s Prayer, let alone the entire liturgy of the Divine Service. So many thoughts run through our minds. We get bucked around, so to speak, as we pray.

Then there is the response…or lack of a response. Attention spans these days are such that if we don’t receive an answer to our petitions in a timely fashion, we will quit praying altogether. Perhaps we will stop coming to church. Next thing you know, we don’t believe there is a God Who hears our prayer. We get thrown off the bull, so to speak, and have no interest in getting back on the bull to finish the ride. Eight seconds become an eternity.

That’s why Saint Matthew, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, thought it important that you hear this account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. It’s easy to get distracted, disinterested, and even disengaged from Jesus Christ, our great High Priest. Silence from above makes us angry. Jesus wants our anger to be turned into persistence. Consider that rodeo cowboy for a moment. The first time he, or she, sat down on a bull in practice, he or she probably knew they wouldn’t last the full eight seconds. They may have barely made it out of the gate before being thrown off the bull. Did they quit? If they thought bull riding wasn’t their forte, yes. If they wanted to show the bull, and themselves, that they aren’t easily deterred, no.

There are times when we think being a Christian isn’t our forte. So we quit praying. We quit receiving the Gifts Jesus gives us here in Divine Service. We let dust grow on Bibles. The Lord is relentless, however. He comes looking for you not out of anger but out of love. He won’t give up on you even when you give up on you.

The tenacious Canaanite woman will not give up on her Lord. She is strapped in on the bull and will not be bucked off the bull no matter what happens. She will hang on for the full eight seconds…and longer, if necessary. Jesus doesn’t answer her word. Buck! Send her away, for she is crying out after us. Kick! It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. Buck! The eight seconds aren’t up and it looks as if she isn’t going to make it.

But she does. She holds steady and will not let go. Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. The buzzer sounds. The eight seconds are up. She remains upright on the bull, undeterred from her goal.

Jesus knew it the whole time. He lets her walk into the trap, but instead lets Himself be trapped and doesn’t mind it at all. O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. Not only does the woman show her strong faith in the Savior, she also receives what she asks. Her daughter was healed instantly.

A bull rider in a rodeo holds on for eight seconds in order to receive a score. The highest score wins the competition. The Canaanite woman holds on to Christ through stiff resistance not for a score, but for her daughter’s demon to be chased away. Her persistence cannot be measured by a score. Her persistence is for our contemplation.

The next time you are tempted to walk away from Jesus because it seems He has gone deaf to your prayers, hunker down, strap in, and don’t let go. Don’t literally ride the Lord Christ like a bull in a rodeo, but don’t go jumping out of the ship of the Church either. Hang on for dear life. Cling to the sure promises of our Savior that you will receive a fair hearing before your heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake. He prays for you. Even now He prays for all your needs. Hang on. Don’t let go. The ride may be longer than you think, but consider the results. He has mercy on you. He brings you out of every trouble. He remembers your sin no more.

First Sunday in Lent – Matthew 4:1-11

Saint Peter warns that your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith. He urges the world to persecute Christians. In some parts of the world the persecution is stronger than in other parts. We have a record of great persecution of Christians in the Acts of the Apostles. We also know from history about the persecution of Martin Luther and those in his wake in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In these latter days, however, the persecution isn’t so much the shedding of blood as it is taunting and ridiculing Christians, especially in the media. What is pernicious about the matter is that Satan looks as if he is completely innocent in his taunting and ridiculing. That’s exactly how the devil shows himself when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness.

Satan challenges Jesus, and us, to provide for ourselves so that we are able to live. Jesus is tempted to change stones into bread. The devil wants to induce Jesus to do something contrary to His Messianic vocation. Why trust in His Father when He can take control of His own life?

We are tempted to take any means necessary, even if it means to sin, in order to preserve our way of life. Sometimes you hear Christians say seemingly harmless things like “God helps those who help themselves.” Some Christians even think that phrase is in the Bible. I’ll save you the time and effort; that phrase is not found in the Bible. If it was, then you would have divine license, at the worst, to swindle your neighbor.

How is this temptation resisted? Jesus counters God’s Word against the devil’s word. Bread doesn’t make for happiness. God’s Word in the Bread of Life makes one happy. That’s a hard one for Christians like you and me to understand. Some people have much. Others have little. Happiness is not measured in gathering earthly stuff. Instead, we often struggle with God’s will for us. That’s why often we are led into need, among other things, in order that you learn to trust in Him and what He has in store for you. His greatest treasure is forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.

Satan also encourages Jesus, and us, to risk something in order to trust in God. Jesus is supposed to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the temple so that angels will rescue Him. We are expected to put ourselves into harm’s way in order that God can show His protection and grace. Harm’s way isn’t always some physical danger. There are many temptations to sin. There is also the temptation to give up on what Scripture says and believe any old way to salvation is just as good as what the Bible says. After all, the world says we’re all going to the same place anyway.

Christ counters this temptation by showing Satan where he mutilates Scripture and properly quoting the Scriptures. He also shows the devil that tempting God is a sin. Christians like you and I should be ready to practice swordsmanship with the Word of God. How will you know Scripture is falsely used if you don’t know what Scripture says? That’s a common problem among many so-called Christians. We don’t know what the Bible says. We don’t read the Bible. So when Satan uses Scripture against Scripture, we get suckered into sin. Don’t rely on God’s protection and grace where we have no promise of it. That is an attempt by the devil to see if God will sustain us even when we go our sinful ways. When you go your own way, you let go of God’s grace…a dangerous way to go indeed!

Satan finally tries to persuade Jesus, and us, that we are supposed to enjoy the good things of this world, while not caring about the good things of the life of the world to come. Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Here’s the thing: they already belong to Christ! No wonder Satan adds that Jesus is supposed to worship him.

The devil tries the same thing with us today. Why walk the narrow way with Jesus when the broad, easy road of the world is much more fun? Aren’t you supposed to give up all fun when you are a Christian? Isn’t smiling or laughing or enjoying family and friends supposed to lead to sin? Yes, friend, it’s all bread and water and doom and gloom when you cling to Christ…or so the devil wants you to think. So why not cling a little to the world and a little to the Lord? That way you get the best of both worlds and, best of all, a backstop in case Jesus is a liar.

Jesus is no liar. He rejects Satan one last time and invokes Scripture again. You can’t be in league with both Satan and the one true God. Here’s how Saint John puts it in his first epistle: Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

Oh, how hard it is to do the will of God when Satan constantly tempts you the other direction. Jesus knows how hard it is. He, like you, was tempted to turn away from His Father. Unlike you, He didn’t falter in holding steady against the assaults of the devil. Even before breathing His last, the cry came for Jesus to come down from the cross to show that He was the Son of God. Satan tempts Jesus to the bitter end, and Jesus never wavers in doing what He is given to do: redeem the world from slavery to sin and the devil.

The world looks at Satan and sees something so innocent that is actually so evil. The agent of darkness cloaks himself in light to trick children of the light. Jesus exposes the darkness so that the Light of the world is not overcome by the prince of darkness. This Light of the world is your hope for eternal life. When you fall to Satan, Jesus is your hope, your sure and certain, from temptation to despair. He will cover you with His pinions, and under His wings you will find refuge.

Quinquagesima – Luke 18:31-43

Great events receive great publicity. You know it’s almost baseball season because promotions appear on radio, television, and social media. We’ll start seeing Gladiolus Festival promotional material soon. The word quickly gets out that something big is coming.

God works the same way. He told Noah about the flood before it happened, commanding him to build an ark to save a remnant for a world washed clean. God used the prophet Jeremiah to proclaim the Babylonian captivity of the tribe of Judah, as well as the tribe’s release. Christ’s birth and ascension was announced to the world. Jesus also told His disciples that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was coming soon.

There’s one big event that has been left out so far: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That, too, was foretold at least three times in the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Jesus wanted to get His disciples ready for what was going to happen. Their faith in Him would be challenged, but also strengthened.

Our time of preparation begins Wednesday. Lent is when our faith is perhaps challenged, but certainly strengthened as we contemplate the suffering of Christ. Today’s Holy Gospel is a fitting way to step into Lent. Jesus leads the way as He says: See, we are going up to Jerusalem.

What do you mean by we, Lord? Jesus goes with us. He’s the reason for the season, so to speak. He knows what is about to happen to Him. He knows what the future holds. As He prophesied and the Old Testament also prophesied, everything has been fulfilled. This is the moment the world has been waiting for. Jesus is the Almighty One Who through His mere Word heals the blind. He is the merciful One Who takes to heart the people of need and misery.

He also is the Son of David, the Son of Man of Whom the prophets prophesied. Christ is Messiah Who redeems His people from their sins. He is our Savior Who bears our infirmities and willingly goes into death. He Whom has crowds of people following Him to hear His teaching and witness His signs will see the same crowds of people turn their backs to Him and be despised by them. This Jesus, the Son of David, is our servant. As He says to the blind man, What do you want Me to do for you?, so He says the same to us as we turn to Him in prayer, in Scripture, and in song.

We also includes our fellow Christians. We consider His Passion with them. They are our travel companions, even if they attend a different church than we do. As they focus on Christ’s death and resurrection, so will we. Wednesday night services are added to our calendar for the next few weeks. We’re focusing on the human nature of Christ on Wednesday nights. Jesus shares our human nature, even to the point of death. Yet He rises triumphantly from the dead so that our death is actually an entrance into eternal life rather than a terminal end to mortal life. Today, as you leave the building, please pick up a book of devotions that will aid your meditation on Christ’s Passion this Lententide.

So you’re not alone as you go up to Jerusalem with Jesus. But how do you consider this walk with the Lord over the next few weeks? You can’t blame the disciples for not understanding anything Jesus said. Even though Jesus’ words were clear, the disciples had a preconceived notion about what Jesus was here to do. They saw how enemies hurt Jesus in the past. Now they think He can’t possibly suffer and die. Maybe Jesus means something else by “suffering” and “death”. They didn’t take Him at His Word.

There is nothing new under the sun. We, like them, do not take Jesus at His Word. What the eyes of faith see, the eyes of understanding try to understand. The eyes of understanding, not seeing with the eyes of faith, see a blameless, good person unjustly put to death.

The eyes of understanding are blind. That is what is so confusing about the blind man being able to see without the use of his eyes. He sees Jesus for Whom He is and what He comes to do. He calls Jesus Son of David, a Messianic term. He believes Jesus is able to have mercy on him…and Jesus does have mercy on him by restoring his sight.

Jesus, as it were, restores your sight today. Once you were blind, unable to see salvation. You are not able to heal yourself. Only the living God is able to heal you. He heals you by drowning you in baptismal water. Now you see Jesus. Now you see Him with eyes of faith, leading you by the hand with countless followers as He suffers, dies, and rises from the dead for you.

Keep those eyes open. See Jesus for Who He is. Pay attention to what He does and what He says. Pray the Lord strengthen your faith this holy Lent. Rejoice that Jesus has done everything necessary to save you from everlasting death. Consider this your promotional invitation to follow Jesus this Lent, and every season in the church year, as He gives you forgiveness and life for free.

Sexagesima – Luke 8:4-15

The parable of the soils that receive the sower’s seed isn’t as cut and dry as it seems. Like last week’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard, this parable is a hallmark of how things are in God’s eyes. Last week laborers grumbled over not receiving more wages for more work even though they agreed to the wage before they started working. This week, four different kinds of soils receive a seed. Three of the four produce nothing. Two of the three receive seed, while another has seed taken from them. The one soil that receives the seed produces a bountiful harvest.

What more could be done for the other three soils? Couldn’t the sower use a better engineered seed to sow? What if he chose a different field? Those are some of the questions we could ask concerning this parable. Another more pressing question is to ask ourselves, “Which soil am I?” These are all good questions to ask. They all, to an extent, miss the point of the parable.

You’re in good company if you don’t understand what Jesus is teaching. Even our Lord’s disciples don’t understand the parable. They ask Him what He meant. Before Christ tells them, He says to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” The secrets of the kingdom are given to them in order that they may make it clear to future generations. Everything becomes clear when you hear Jesus break down this parable…or does it?

The point of the parable is that the seed of the Word of God always works wherever it lands. Even when birds of the air devour the seed, or when the seed withers or is choked by weeds, and especially when it lands on good soil, the seed does what it is made to do. So how come the “failure rate” is 75 percent? It’s not a “failure rate” as much as it you not getting out of your own way to let the seed have its way with you.

But that doesn’t make sense! The ground doesn’t have much of a say about where the seed lands. It certainly didn’t for many years of farming. These days farmers have ways of cultivating soil, preparing it to receive the seed. When the seed is planted, it is put exactly where the farmer wants it to go. Even the seed is genetically engineered to produce a bountiful harvest. If the farmer is blessed to live where he or she is able to water crops via irrigation, all the better. The farmer can control much of the crop. Nevertheless, there is also much out of his or her hands. When you want rain, it doesn’t fall. When you want dry weather, you get a flood of water. It’s too hot or not hot enough. You never get perfect conditions to grow crops.

Jesus isn’t giving a tutorial on how to grow crops. He’s showing you how things are with God’s Word when the sower sows the seed of the Word. The soil does not get out of its own way when it comes to receiving the seed. On the sower’s end, there’s no need to re-engineer the seed to make it resistant to anything with which the soil might contaminate the seed. Like agribusinesses of today, though, we think the seed needs a little something to help it along. After all, merely the preaching of God’s Word won’t get the job done.

Let’s jazz the seed up a bit. Let’s make it more palatable to a new generation. It’s always an older generation who think they know what young people of today want. If we do this just so, if we say it in this way, then the seed will work just the way we want it to work. That may work with some things, but it doesn’t work with this seed. When we try to jazz it up, we’re taking something that God says is good and calling it bad. Only when we do something to it does it become good.

So what about the soils? What can be done to fix hard, stony, and thorny ground? Usually what happens is you tell the ground to stop being hard, stony, or thorny. A lot of good that will do. The ground cannot fix itself. The seed cannot fix it. You can cultivate it all you want but, according to Christ, the soil is what the soil is. When the seed lands it does what it is supposed to do. It’s a shame that the seed lands on soil that doesn’t receive it, but the seed does what it does in spite of the soil.

That’s a hard teaching to accept. Jesus shows what happens when you don’t get out of your own way in receiving the seed. Birds of the air pick up the seed and devour it. The natural way of birds digesting seed means that the seed will ultimately land elsewhere. Maybe the seed produces a bountiful harvest. Maybe the seed will suffer a similar end as before. But you can’t blame the seed. You can’t blame the sower. The soil just didn’t receive it.

So it is with the soils of human hearts and souls. Some are so hard that soil will never receive it. Some are so rocky that there’s no moisture for the seed to mature. Some are so thorny that the seed can never take root and grow. A heart like yours and mine can act any of those ways when it receives the seed. We cannot get out of our own way. We impose limits or rules on the seed that we receive. We may even try to block that seed because we want to remain fallow ground.

When the seed falls on good soil, however, what a harvest! Good soil hears the Word, holds it fast in an honest and good heart, and bears fruit with patience. If only our hearts could be like that soil! It is, as long as you get out of your own way and let the seed do what the seed does. As foolish as it is for soil to tell a farmer what crop it wants and exactly where it wants the seed, so it is foolish for you to tell the sower what kind of seed you want. The sower knows what is best for the soil. The sower never does you evil and always does you good. The seed that He sows bears fruit where the soil is simply soil that receives the seed, holds on to the seed, and lets it become a bountiful harvest…a harvest of rejoicing in the forgiveness and life He sows.

Septuagesima – Matthew 20:1-16

How do you write a sermon whose text is something I preach about every week? What more can be said about God’s grace? Grace is free, it goes one way, and it is not so much something that is stored up but is poured out. Grace is also the most offensive thing going today in the Christian Church.

How can something that is a basic theme in the Bible be so loved, yet also so offensive at the same time? Because you are not in control of God’s grace, that’s why. I am not in control of God’s grace. The use of the possessive here should tell you Who is in control of God’s grace. Our heavenly Father is the giver. You are the receiver. His love for a sinner like you goes one way. Your love for Him and for what He does in Jesus Christ flows first from His unmerited and undeserved love for you.

That’s what those who bellyache about bearing the burden of the day and the scorching heat do not want to understand. They think they know how grace works. They don’t know a thing about it. Those poor souls. But take a close look at those poor souls for just a moment. Look them in the eye and see who they are. Those poor souls look just like you. If I look at one guy toward the rear of the laborers in the vineyard, I see myself as if I am looking into a mirror.

Instances like this one in Christ’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard is why it is good that we take this moment to be reminded what Scripture says about grace, the undeserved, unmerited favor of God over sinners. We know God’s grace is amazing because there’s a popular hymn written about it. We know grace is free and boundless because there’s a hymn that says so. We know that Saint Paul is a preacher of grace because he spends a lot of time talking about it to the churches who receive his epistles. When grace hits us between the eyes in the way Jesus does with His words in Matthew chapter twenty, well, we don’t want to hear it.

Twelve hours of hard work in a vineyard receives the same pay as one hour of work. Unfair. Did you stop to think, however, that the laborers who entered the vineyard at the eleventh hour had their chance to work? You would think they would make the first move to the master of the house. You would think they would have made that move many hours before he came to them. Neither of these options occurred. Grace doesn’t start with you. Grace starts with a gracious God Who sends His workers into the marketplace to bring people into the kingdom of grace. He seeks you. He finds you. He is relentless in His search for you.

But why can’t you make the first move? After all, ingenuity is a hallmark of the American way. You can’t be ingenious when you are dead. We just sang, “None can remove sin’s poisoned dart/Or purify our guileful heart/So deep is our corruption.” The offer to work does not begin with you because you’re poisoned, guileful, and corrupt by nature. If the offer began with you, then it isn’t grace. A cadaver can’t work and play in the vineyard. It can only lay there like a rock.

So you lay there, dead to sin, until God in Christ Jesus raises you up by covering you with His blood and His life. “Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,/Your death is now my life indeed,/For You have paid my ransom.” The anger over not getting paid more now is about merit than it is grace. In the civil realm, merit has its place. How much education you have or how much experience you have determines your pay grade and your place at work. In the spiritual realm, however, everybody gets the same thing: the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ. We leap for joy over a deathbed conversion, but at the same time get angry that the person converted on their deathbed didn’t have to go through all the struggles that I go through on a daily basis. My grace is more expensive than their grace.

Grace is not a sliding scale of merit; otherwise grace would not be grace. Grace, again, is God’s one-way love for sinners. He pours it all out over you. You receive it, rejoice in it, and rise to labor in His vineyard. Yet when you hear the word “labor” you think there’s work to be done to show God how much you appreciate His grace. Undeserved love morphs into merit again. Merit talk is Law talk. You can never show God enough appreciation. You will never live up to His grace. You don’t have to do anything for God. He does it all for you. Then He sets you free in His vineyard to labor for Him…and even that labor isn’t so much toil and tears as it is freedom to play.

Now that you don’t have to worry about eternal life and payment for sin, you are set free to care for one another as if that other is God Himself. Even that care you show for your neighbor isn’t payback to God as if grace is a loan. Once again, if grace is a loan then grace is not grace. No wonder we hate grace so much. The old sinful nature in all of us is looking for a way to twist God’s love for us into a labor agreement. He’ll do this, and then you’ll do that. Guess what? That isn’t grace.

Here’s grace: though you know your heart’s condition, you also know your Savior’s voice. Your Savior’s voice speaks to you in His Word. He is not angry with you. He is satisfied with you because Jesus is satisfied with you. Jesus paid your ransom. The debt of sin is cancelled in Christ. Your faith in what God has done for you depends on grace—grace through His Son. Even then your faith isn’t something you started and God finished. Faith is also a gift from God, created as you hear His Word of pardon for you.

Where do you find this grace that you hear in Scripture? You came to the right place. Here it is, flowing from my mouth in this pulpit. Here it is, flowing from this altar under bread and wine as you eat and drink Christ’s true Body and true Blood. Here it is, flowing from the font where water and God’s Word made you His child. Here it is, where absolution is spoken from Christ through His unworthy servant. Grace is here, and it is for you. It can’t be bought or sold. You can’t transfer it to someone else. You can’t store it up like money in a savings account. God gives it to you. You receive it with gladness. No more grief. No more foul conscience. Your life in Jesus Christ is anchored in His grace, His love for a sinner like you.

The Management of Grace in the Medieval Church and Luther’s Antidote to the Management of Grace

The language of the gospel was the key to [Martin] Luther’s struggle from the very beginning. Paul Tillich has helpfully described medieval theology and practice as a “system of objective, quantitative, and relative relations between God and man for the sake of providing eternal happiness for man.” Grace was meted out to the common believer by the church, primarily through the means of the sacraments. It was done in such a way as to give the believer a sense of grace as an objective substance, something that one would do well to pile up a store of….

If grace seems to be objective, then it cannot very well be personal, it cannot be the living voice of Jesus. And if grace is objective, the believer is psychologically driven to store up a measure against that dark day which was never far away from the medieval person. Grace was not qualitative, like an embrace or loving word that changes things. It was more like banking spiritual certificates of deposit to be used when needed. That is what the indulgence practice was all about. Grace was relative, not absolute; there was never enough, so the conscience of many a medieval Christian was restless and without peace.

Behind this system was the persistent temptation for the medieval church to believe that God belongs to the church and that God’s love can be managed. That same temptation stands at the door of every church building to this very day – the temptation to control the gospel. In the medieval church, the results of that temptation had been fixed in dogma and public teaching.

An objective, quantitative, and relative sense of grace was devastating for a person’s conscience. Luther knew that very well, both from his own spiritual journey and from observing the Christians who lived around him. Luther knew that when a person can’t get enough of the assurance which he or she needs to live, that person gets anxious. He also knew that anxiety was not what Jesus promised; it was not the “peace that passes all understanding.” What set Luther on his road to reformation was his perception of the irony that the great medieval church system, which was ostensibly to bring people to certainty of their salvation, did just the opposite. Instead of blessed assurance, it meant an endless struggle to climb a ladder reaching toward a distant and holy God.

Just as the very practical problem of uneasy consciences started Luther on his struggle with the system that produced them, so also was his solution a very down-to-earth and practical one. Anxious people need the news of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, and the preeminent way to receive that news is through the clear and simple speaking of the gospel. Luther’s “linguistic innovation” was to disengage the gospel from the medieval machinery that controlled it and set it free by putting it on the lips of believers.

Luther knew that the freedom of God as spirit is truly honored when the gospel is conveyed in human speech. In the medieval system there was a sense of a certainty, a guarantee of grace, but always never enough. The spoken word has a certain freedom, a certain ambiguity at its center, but at the same time a certain completeness and finality, once it is heard, that is correlative with the gospel. When the gospel is spoken there is no guarantee that it will be heard as good news, or even that it is spoken out of a believing heart. It is up to God, in the freedom of the spirit, to bring the message home. Once heard as a personal word pro me, however, the gospel is enough. As Luther had learned so well from the baby Jesus – that which is common, ordinary, even despised, is often just the way that God comes to us. So it is with our ordinary words.

The word of the gospel is not the same as our everyday words, yet it is in our everyday words about Jesus that the gospel does come to us. Our faithful words, by the spirit of God, become words with the plus of revelation. Words are just the right vehicle, that vehicle which can and does become the very message of grace.

Sheldon A. Tostengard, The Spoken Word, pages 48-50

The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Matthew 17:1-9

Slightly revised from 2009.

Just when Peter thought it was good to be on the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, Moses, Elijah, James, and John, he heard a voice coming out of the cloud that surrounded them: this is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him! The next thing Peter knew, he looked up and saw no one but Jesus only. Jesus then commanded Peter, James, and John to tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.

Why hide such a marvelous sight? Why not tell the whole world before Jesus suffers and dies an innocent death? There’s the rub. Jesus must suffer the worst punishment possible, even death, as a suitable sacrifice for our sin. If Peter, James, and John were to tell everyone what they saw immediately, there’s a chance Jesus may never make it to Golgotha with a crown of thorns on His head and a cross on His back.

It’s ironic that the sight of Jesus dying on a cross is one we would rather not see, even though His death brings us forgiveness, life, and salvation. We would rather focus on the happier events of our Lord’s life. It’s good to be on the mount of Transfiguration. It’s good to be in Bethlehem with the wise men. It’s good to be in Jerusalem seeing the “tweener” Jesus teach the doctors of God’s Law. It’s good to be at Cana. It’s good to be in Capernaum for the healing of the leper and the centurion’s servant. It’s bad to be at Golgotha when the Romans crucify Jesus on behalf of the Jews.

It’s good to focus on all the joy Jesus brings us. Yet that joy comes wrapped in a horrible event: Christ’s death. Sure, we know the ending is a happy one with the resurrection. But pondering the Passion of Jesus is not what we would call an enjoyable experience. So we hurry through Lent to get to Easter and all those resurrection hymns. It’s better to sing “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” than “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth”. White lilies brighten the church better than violet’s penitential mood. Who cares about the Suffering Servant? Let’s get to the happy ending and hang around as long as possible!

Perhaps that’s what Peter, James, and John might be thinking as they descend the mountain with Jesus. Why wait to tell about Jesus appearing with Moses and Elijah in all His glory. Why wait to divulge the content of their conversation; most certainly about the events that were about to take place in Jerusalem. Let’s make sure everyone knows that Jesus is the awesome God long foretold by prophets and patriarchs! Let’s spread the Word that Jesus is the Second Adam from God the Father Himself, ready to undo Adam’s horrible deed wrought by the crafty serpent!

Peter, James, and John do what we might think is unthinkable. They tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead. It’s hard enough for us to keep a secret several days, let alone three disciples keeping the Transfiguration a secret for a longer period of time. When Jesus rises from the dead, these men and the other apostles can’t stop talking about Jesus and what He did for the sins of the world. They cannot stop proclaiming His resurrection story. They cannot stop telling everyone what they saw and heard. What they once saw with their eyes, they now tell with their lips. The Word of the apostles creates and sustains faith in the Savior who shows His glory not merely in His transfiguration, but in His dying woes and His resurrection joy.

The Epiphany season draws to a close today. But there are two more big epiphanies yet to come. One happens on a dark Friday afternoon when Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, cries out it is finished and gives up His spirit. The other happens in the predawn hours that next Sunday when some women and later some apostles go to the tomb and find it empty, just as Jesus told them. All the wonders we have heard these last few weeks build to these long awaited climactic moments. The transfigured Jesus will shine brighter in glorious humility, only to outdo Himself with by shining brighter than a refiner’s fire with an empty tomb, while being mistaken by Mary for a gardener.

If you think the preceding glimpses of Christ’s glory were something, then the best is yet to come. What the unbelieving world describes as a cunningly devised fable we will see to be the prophetic word confirmed, which [we] do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place. Lent cannot extinguish the light of the world. Holy Week cannot extinguish the light of the world. These two solemn seasons prepare us to lament our sins, repent, and once again believe in the Good News that Jesus conquers the old evil foe once again, once and for all.

The next three weekends will prepare us for Lent by fixing our eyes on how God deals with us: grace alone, Word alone and ultimately Christ alone. Ashes will smear our forehead as we make our penitential cry on Ash Wednesday. Wednesday Vespers will focus on our Lord’s humanity. We have a Savior Who hungers, thirsts, has a mother, is exposed, and is beaten.

The next thing we know it will be Holy Week. Jesus will institute His Supper on Maundy Thursday. Muted joy reigns on Good Friday as the sacrifice for sin is complete. A dark church building comes alive with light during the Easter Vigil as the first proclamation of the Resurrection is made. Finally comes Easter morning as lilies represent the trumpet of the resurrection Gospel.

All this comes after the fantastic sight we see with Peter, James, and John today in the Transfiguration. Thanks be to God that Peter, James, and John told no one of this wonderful sight until the Son of Man rose from the dead. Their silence made it possible for Jesus to die for our sins and rise from the dead. God grant that we may see Jesus only as the humble and glorious Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 8:23-27

When Jesus got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. That’s the most important thing to remember about this sign in Matthew chapter eight. Matthew sets it up under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration by telling us Jesus is in the boat. No matter what follows, everything is going to be fine because Jesus got into the boat.

A storm follows. The boat is swamped by waves. His disciples start to panic. But Jesus is asleep. He knows. He knows a lot more about the situation than the disciples, or you and I do. He knows there’s a storm. He knows the disciples are going to freak out. He also knows that He is in the boat. What could possibly go wrong because He is in the boat?

That’s the little matter we forget every day. The Lord is still Lord of His Church. The Lord is still Lord of our lives and God of our salvation. He knows everything. He has power and authority over all things. Like the disciples, though, your life is full of distress, discord, dismay, and discouragement.

If only you could yell louder so politicians and other public figures could understand how upset you are about the way things are. Email and phone conversations don’t do much. Maybe if you get up in their face and scream they will hear you. A little spittle on their cheek might even seal the deal. Let’s not just confine our pain to public figures. Let’s bring the pain where it hurts the most: at home. Children do what they want, when they want. Marriages fall apart because husband and wife stop communicating and start ignoring. Family members hold grudges for years, decades, maybe even for life.

Let’s bring the pain even closer to us: the church. Empty pews and wringing hands. No Sunday School. Few confirmands. Poor Bible class attendance. Hurting people who no longer think God wants anything to do with them because His Son seems to be sleeping every time you pray. Hurting pastors who, like Elijah under the tree in First Kings, think the future of the Christian Church depends solely upon their performance in the pulpit, at the sickbed, and in meetings.

Let’s see the source of the pain: sin. You fall short of the mark of excellence God expects from His children. Jesus puts you in the boat of the Church by hearing the Word of reconciliation and washing you clean from sin in Baptism. Safe and secure in Him, the storms of life come crashing on you. What’s the first thing you do? Scream until Jesus wakes up. That’s what His disciples do. Save us, Lord; we are perishing.

That’s the prayer of a sinful disciple of Jesus Christ. That’s not an accusation so much as the way it is in Christ. There’s no such thing as a sinless disciple of Jesus Christ. You would expect the reaction of His disciples. That’s our reaction, too. Save us, Lord. I’m dying here. A little help would be appreciated. Please.

There are times when that help doesn’t quickly come. We lose hope. We quit praying. We quit the fellowship around the altar and pulpit. We forget that we are baptized into Christ. We forget that Jesus is in the boat. So we think the proper thing to do is throw ourselves out of the boat. After all, Jesus is sleeping. He doesn’t care. He won’t miss me.

He will miss you. He will seek you. He will find you. He is relentless. He does so not out of anger, but out of love and mercy. Loveless and merciless people like you and me have a hard time understanding that because we expect everything right now. Jesus often doesn’t answer right now. He does so to test and to strengthen your trust in Him. Jesus isn’t sadistic in doing so. Perseverance produces patience. Patience finds its certain hope in a Savior Who is in the boat.

Why are you afraid, O you of little faith? Jesus is in the boat. He calms the storm, both on the sea and in your life. He takes your pain, your sin, and your fear and covers them in His righteousness, His peace, and His joy. Your eternal destiny is taken care of in Christ. You have nothing to fear. Jesus is in the boat. He rebukes the wind and waves that toss you to and fro. He may not do it today, tomorrow, or even next week. He will, however, calm the tempestuous seas of your life by giving you His life, His love, and His forgiveness.

What sort of man is this? Jesus is the sort of man Who knows what you need before you ask Him. Jesus is the sort of man who loves you in a way you cannot love Him or love your neighbor. Saint Paul says in today’s Epistle: Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. What Paul does not say is that because Jesus loves you, you get to hate everyone else. Love that flows from divine love does not act that way. Jesus loves you because, to Him, you are His neighbor…and more than a neighbor, His child. He fulfills the law in perfect love. Your love will never be perfect. Still, you love your neighbor because Christ first loved you.

You can never go wrong with Christ’s love for you and for others. Living your life where God puts you, doing what God gives you to do where He puts you, shows others that you are put in the boat, the ark, of the Church. The Lord takes you through wind and waves safely into eternal life, caring for you all the way with His Word that declares you forgiven. You are in the boat, and Jesus is in the boat with you. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.

 

Third Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 8:1-13

The two men who meet Jesus after the Sermon on the Mount were not chosen at random. Both men, to a Jew, are outcasts, but in different ways. One is unclean and must stay outside any populated area until he is clean. There is a ceremonial ritual used by a Jewish priest to declare a leper clean and ready to return home. We know this from Luke chapter 17 when Jesus tells the ten lepers to go and show yourselves to the priests. The Old Testament book of Leviticus describes the ceremony.

The other man is a Roman citizen, a Gentile. The kingdom of heaven is not for him, at least not yet, if ever. Jesus has chiefly come to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Nevertheless, a Gentile here or there testifies Who Jesus is and what He comes to do. In a few weeks we’ll hear the plight of the Canaanite woman who is called a yipping puppy but receives from Jesus what she desires because she clings to Him despite all the odds against her.

The leper properly asks for healing. Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. Coming on the heels of our Lord teaching the model prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, we see the petition Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven illustrated before our eyes. Perhaps it would help us get to the heart of the matter if we sharpen up those words in the Lord’s Prayer. There’s nothing wrong with them right now. Sharpening them up a bit helps us clearly to see the intent of our asking.

When we pray Thy will be done we are actually praying Let your will be done. This is subjunctive mood rather than indicative mood. Without getting into a deep and long grammar lesson, subjunctive mood relates to desire or conditional actions. Jesus teaches us to pray with desire and also with a condition. When we pray for spiritual matters, like letting His kingdom come among us, we pray without conditions. We desire to grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. The Lord God has to give us that petition. Who wouldn’t want more of that good thing?! When we pray for temporal matters, however, we ask that God’s will is done. He knows what is best for us, although we think we know what is best for us.

Lord, if you will, you can make me clean. I will; be clean. Just like that, the leper is clean again. He then is told not to tell anyone but do what God’s Law demands: show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them. The Giver of the gift is honored not only in giving healing, but also in the leper showing Himself to the priest and offering the gift Moses commanded.

If Christ deals one way with a Jewish leper, should He not then deal with a Roman Centurion in a different way? The tactic of paying no attention to him while he asks for help, as Jesus did with the Canaanite woman, would be one way of getting the message across. Sir, with all due respect, you came to the wrong Man. Shouldn’t you ask Caesar or one of the gods that the Romans offer worship? Jesus instead hears the man’s request and says I will come and heal him. So off we go to the Centurion’s house, right?

Wrong. The words that flow from the Centurion’s mouth, well, let’s let him speak for himself. Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant. “Do this,” and he does it.

Sounds like a loyal and true-blue Jew, doesn’t it? Ah, but this man is a Centurion. He’s a Roman citizen. He’s not supposed to know much, if anything, about Messiah. After all, Jesus is not a Roman citizen. When in Rome you do as the Romans do, right? Not here. Not now. Not this Roman citizen. Something that is supposed to be not for him or his family is something that has been given to him and to his family by God’s grace. He believes Jesus Christ not only is able to do something about his servant, but also believes that He is the Son of the most-high God, the only way to everlasting life.

It’s a jaw dropping moment to be sure. Jesus affirms it. Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. But wait, Jesus takes it one step farther. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Not only does the Centurion outdo many Jewish people, he now also has a place at the heavenly banquet with the Patriarchs. To an average Jew of that time these words are blasphemy. No Gentile should have a place next to the Patriarchs.

To both Jew and Gentile looking for the consolation of Israel, however, these words are consolation and joy. You get to sit at the big-person table even though you don’t deserve to be in the same building with all the big-people. No more chicken necks and wings at the kids table. You’re eating and drinking with the all-star dream team of hall-of-fame greats who placed all their trust and hope in the promise of a Savior they never saw except with the eyes of faith. The velvet ropes that once cordoned off the table for the children of Israel alone are taken away. Jesus does every good and perfect thing for you, whether Jew or Gentile.

Today He will send you home with these words in your pocket: Go; let it be done for you as you have believed. Subjunctive mood. You have been acted upon by the living God. Your sins are forgiven and paid for in the blood of Jesus Christ. You live because Jesus first lived, triumphant over death and Satan and the grave. The face of God shines upon you in Word, bread, wine, and water. His countenance covers you and protects you from all harm of the devil, the world, and your own flesh. Evil shall not overcome you, for good has triumphed over evil. Christ has triumphed for you. He includes you in the triumphant parade and saves you a seat next to Him in the heavenly banquet.

We are not worthy for Him to enter into our roof. He comes. He comes today with joy to meet you at His altar with life. Worthy are you, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, to receive Him. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

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