Second Sunday in Advent – Malachi 4:1-6

            Malachi means “my messenger”. His message is one of love, of repentance, and of preparation. Love doesn’t have to come in pretty paper and sappy sentiment. Love can come in harsh words. Malachi spares nothing in reminding Israel what they have done. They have turned from the Lord to idolatry. They have forfeited their inheritance of being God’s chosen people. Messiah comes from Judah, not from Israel. Yet He still loves them. He desires their repentance so that they welcome Messiah’s arrival. Messiah comes to save them as well as their cousins in Judah and even the Gentiles.

            Yet there is rebuking to be done. The priests of Israel have failed to live up to the Lord’s expectations. Malachi says: If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Not even Judah is spared the Lord’s rebuke through Malachi: Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god.

            There is nothing new under the sun. God’s people stray from His word for new ideas and familiar idols. In a season where hope springs eternal in the promise of a Savior Who is born man, we look for someone or something else as our savior. Perhaps we think if God loves us so much, how come He doesn’t give us an instant cure for this virus? How come He doesn’t end all racial strife? How come He doesn’t pave a way for a level playing field for all human beings to earn a living? How come He lets false teachers of Scripture stand alongside those who speak His truth from Scripture? We forget that God does not exclusively work on what’s happening now. God focuses our eyes, ears, heart, and soul on the long game.

            The long game is what Malachi is working toward in his oracle. The long game is what Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel, reflecting back to Malachi’s words over four centuries before. The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The first thing that comes to mind might be, “Oh, boy, the Lord is gonna show those unbelievers a thing or two on that day!” Be careful that you do not find yourself among the arrogant and evildoers, among people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

            All we see today, all the hard work of mankind to form a more perfect union in our country and elsewhere, will burn. Relationships will change in the blink of an eye. We’re so used to marriage and family that we forget that the only family that matters in the life of the world to come is the family of God, sealed in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. Yet we’re so focused on today and endless tomorrows that we neglect to look at the long game of eternity.

            For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. It is these verses from Malachi that Charles Wesley had in mind when he wrote the beloved Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. “Hail, the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Risen with healing in His wings.” The birth of Jesus Christ according to the flesh brings joy like calves leaping from a stall. If you know how to raise cattle, you know how calves show their playfulness by jumping and dashing around a stall. That’s how it is for you and for me in believing that Jesus comes to make all things new.

            Malachi also says that we shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. These words reminds us of the Litany, when we pray “to beat down Satan under our feet”. The wicked believe there is no God. The wicked despise the things of God and look to their own doings as their hope. When your hope is in the here and now and you have no hope for a long game, you will be tread down and become ashes under the feet of those who leap like calves from the stall in playful joy that their Redeemer has come.

            We know our redemption is drawing near because Malachi’s oracle concludes with two commands. First he bids us remember the law of my servant Moses. The use of law here is more than the Ten Commandments. Malachi wants us to remember the fullness of God’s revelation that includes the promise of salvation in Messiah, the Christ. Then he promises the coming of Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord. The one who comes in the spirit of Elijah is John the Baptist. John prepares the way of the Lord by turning the hearts of father to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Our attention is turned to John the next two weeks as we hear his testimony concerning Christ.

            Today, though, we consider Malachi, the Lord’s messenger whose words are the last thing God has to say to His people for over four hundred centuries. Though we are stung with his penetrating preaching of repentance, he does not leave us hopeless. The day is coming. The end of all things arrives soon. Until that day, we remember the torah of Moses and hear the preaching of Elijah. Both men also do not leave us hopeless. Moses, Elijah, Malachi, and John the Baptist point us to Jesus, the hope of the world. The church has a future because Jesus has a future. His future, our future, is eternal life in the presence of the Sun of Righteousness.

First Sunday in Advent – Matthew 21:1-9

            Hope is coming. Bob Hope is dead. So is the actress Hope Lange. Maybe it is someone we don’t know whose first or last name is Hope? What does this phrase mean: Hope is coming?

            To know what this phrase means, let’s break it down and discover what the words mean. The subject is hope. Since you’re in a church building, the hope that is mentioned here is different than the hope that those outside Christianity know.

            Hope as the world sees it is a wish. You know that wishes can come true, but more often than not they do not come true. I’d love to live in a Mid-Century Modern home with terrazzo floors and period furniture. I don’t have the financial means to be able to afford to buy or build such a home. But, hey, I can always hope! Maybe someday that dream will come true. Until then, it costs nothing to look and to hope.

            Christian hope, however, is not something that is pie in the sky and bye and bye. Christian hope is a certainty. Christian hope is always hope for the coming Redeemer. Christian hope is something that we Christians have neglected through the years. We tend to focus on the here and now and not so much on the there and then. Perhaps we don’t like to think about the there and then because we know so little about it.

            We know what Holy Scripture says about the future of the church. Saint Paul says in First Thessalonians chapter four that we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. Paul then goes on to describe the scene of Judgment Day, one of the clearest passages in Scripture that describe what the Last Day looks like. He ends this section by saying: we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

            Hope is a certainty for a Christian because Jesus Christ has given us this certainty that we will always be with Him. Where Jesus is, there is the Father and there is the Holy Spirit. Where is Jesus in Matthew chapter 21? He enters Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. He enters Jerusalem to bear your sin in His death upon the cross. His death is the end of your death. His resurrection from the dead is the beginning of your life with Him and with all who believe in Jesus for eternity. This triumphant entry is Christian hope in action. You know from Scripture how this ends. You know from experiencing the church year how this plays out week after week in the Divine Service.

            Yet everything that is certain seems so uncertain. We’ve been waiting so long for Jesus to return. Why does He delay, yet the Scriptures continue to proclaim He is coming soon? A date would be nice. Then we would have something to look forward to in the midst of everything being suspended, postponed, or cancelled.

            We do have something to look forward to, especially in the season of Advent. We have hope. Hope is coming. Hope is Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the Ancient of Days. In fact, that hope is already here. That’s the joy we have in this season and in every church year. The hope of the world, Jesus Christ, is present among us in His preached word. Each week Holy Scripture is read and unpacked for you. The texts are familiar, yet the application changes year after year. A year ago we didn’t worry about a pandemic, about people getting sick with a novel virus even to the point of tens of thousands of deaths. Next year there may be another worry, if there is a next year. That’s the thing about hope. We live in expectation that Jesus will return to put an end to this world and usher in a new heavens and a new earth. That’s the hope we are waiting for right now.

            Jesus Christ, the hope of the world, is also present for us in our baptism, and in our eating and drinking His very Body and Blood in His Supper. Baptism unites us with Christ the Redeemer, our living hope. All the promises He makes are applied to us as He grafts us into His vine. As we grow in His grace, we are nourished with His Supper for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith in Him Who is the life of the world.

            The entire creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility… because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. As we wait, we listen to His word. We rejoice in our baptism. We eat and drink His Supper. The consummation of hope will happen soon. Scripture says so, and the Scriptures cannot be broken. Hope is coming. Jesus is coming, just as He has come into the world to bring forgiveness and life, just as He comes among us now present in His holy word and sacraments. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Day of National Thanksgiving – Philippians 4:6-20

            When you hear the list of adjectives Saint Paul gives in Philippians chapter four, you may be tempted to list what fits under these adjectives since one year ago. Whatever is true. Maybe you don’t know what is true and what is a lie. You see and hear so much information every day that it’s hard to determine what is right and what is wrong. You don’t have time to check the facts and make an informed decision. So you believe very little of what you see and hear, if you believe anything you see and hear in the first place.

            Whatever is honorable. Depending on your outlook in life, there may be many honorable people, or there may be few honorable people. One thing is for sure: you are probably waiting for one of them to lose their honor, if that person had any honor in the first place.

            Whatever is just. Fairness and equality are two buzz words frequently used in conversation. Certain politicians love to talk about a level playing field for everyone. Yet you wonder if that is truly just, or is that person looking for a way to make themselves just as your expense? Is anything just anymore?

            Whatever is pure. Wow. Purity is no longer a virtue. People who say and do things are purely prudes or, at best, are so innocent that they are blind to how the world operates.

            Whatever is lovely. Ours is a time where hate is love and love is hate. Even something or someone ugly is beautiful and beautiful people, places, and ideas are ugly.

            Whatever is commendable. What is commendable to one person is despicable to another. Maybe it’s best not to commend anything, lest you lose friends and influence among others.

            If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. So we are anesthetized from thinking about all these things Saint Paul talks about in Philippians chapter four. There is nothing universally true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. There is only what we think are these things, while others find their own things. Everyone is right. No one is wrong. You do you. I do me.

            If everyone is right and no one is wrong, then all these things Saint Paul mentions are meaningless. Life itself is meaningless. Christian hope is meaningless, unless you are a Christian and even then they may still be meaningless to you. What are we to think about? We think about everything that is not one of those things. When we come to a day like tomorrow where we pause to consider the blessings of the past year, we find an empty mind, a callous heart, and a full stomach. We might even be tempted to believe there is nothing for which to be thankful except that this horrible year is nearly over. Even then, what if the promises of an end to a pandemic prove to be false? What if all we know is wrong and all we don’t know is right?

            If there’s one thing to be thankful for over the last year, it is the fact that many of our idols have been smashed. All the things we took for granted are now precious to us, while all the things once precious to us are taken for granted. Being together around the altar, pulpit, and font was taken from us for a while in order to keep us safe from illness. It could be taken from us again at any time. The same can be said for being with extended family, friends, and neighbors. Even eating in a restaurant has become an exercise in risk management. No one seems to know what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.

            Saint Paul does. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he tells the church in Philippi, and the church in Momence, to think about these things. What things? What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. Saint Paul encourages his hearers to practice what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Practice grace. Practice forgiveness. Practice hope. Practice joy. Practice peace. In brief, practice Christ.

            How do I practice Christ? Christ dwells among you in His Word and Sacraments. What flows from these gifts are His gifts to you and to your neighbor. Jesus delivers forgiveness of sins and eternal life in these gifts. Staying connected to Jesus in His gifts brings forth all these good things Saint Paul says. The thing about is that you often don’t notice it happening. They happen. They happen because He is the One Who does them in you. Living in Christ is more than accepting a set of dogmas and doctrines. Living in Christ is His gifts forming you to be His workmanship. Those outside Christ often see them as being civil. Those in Christ, however, see more than civil righteousness. They see Jesus using you as His handiwork. They don’t so much see you as they see Christ.

            In a year where it has been difficult to see something good amid so much bad, you see Christ still at work among His people. Granted it gets difficult to see Him at work at times, but He is there, bringing joy and life as He always does. The Good News that Jesus Christ has conquered sin, death, and hell is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 9:18-26

            Media vita in morte sumus. Mitten wir im Leben sind. No matter what language you say it, the first words of today’s Chief Hymn say it all: In the very midst of life snares of death surround us. We are, as it were, walking corpses. Luther preferred the term “maggot sack” to describe his earthly body. Every day was another step closer to the grave, where the maggots would eat his flesh. Every step closer to the grave is also a step closer to resurrection from the grave. For a Christian, the grave is little more than a bed. You close your eyes in temporal death, and the next thing you know, you live. You are a new creation, made whole in Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead. Jesus is our Hope from sickness and death.

            Two women, one alive and the other dead, are in need of hope from Jesus. The woman alive in Matthew chapter nine suffered from a discharge of blood for twelve years. It’s not hard to imagine something like this condition, for perhaps you have a medical condition that lingers with little help from medication and doctors. Twelve years is enough time to be hopeless about a cure.

            For this woman, twelve years of frustration end with one sentence. If I only touch his garment, I will be made well. How did she know that merely touching Jesus’ tunic would cure her illness? Behold the wonder of faith that clings to the Word spoken to her. Somehow, somewhere, she heard Jesus and believed He could heal her ailment. Unlike the ruler, who knelt before Jesus and asked him to lay His hands on his daughter to raise her from the dead, this woman sneaks up on Christ from behind, so to speak.

            It may seem tricky to sneak up on Jesus and touch His garment for healing. A better way would be to face Him head-on and ask for help. That’s polite, but her way shows that no matter how you approach our Lord, He is able to help. Maybe He even prefers a back-door request without words. Jesus knows exactly what she wants. She need not ask. He turns to her after she touches His garment and says take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well. Faith led her to touch His garment. Faith in Christ as the Divine Healer of every disease, both in body and in soul, is our hope for healing.

            It is easy to see this incident as being impolite or even underhanded. Nevertheless, it is more underhanded never to approach Christ with our petitions, whether it is for healing or for any other need. Much is made of many words spoken to God as if the right combination of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions, will impress Him so much that He has no choice to answer in the positive. It’s not wrong to pray long prayers, but it is also not wrong to sneak up on God and touch His garment. He loves to work in left-handed ways. After all, His only-begotten Son became Man in order to be the perfect offering for sin.

            Jesus is also our hope from death. Don’t forget that our Lord was on His way to resurrect the ruler’s daughter when the woman with the discharge of blood did her thing. The first words out of Christ’s mouth when He arrives at the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion was Go away, for the girl is not dead but sleeping. Only Jesus could say such a thing and mean it. The mourners laughed at Him. Jesus gets the last laugh.

            He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose. Here we see a picture of Judgment Day, when Jesus will speak to His beloved children who have fallen asleep in the sleep of death and speak them awake. This incident and all other instances of resurrection in Holy Scripture make fools laugh. There is no way that something as dead as a ruler’s daughter, or as dead as Lazarus, can stand up and live. But they do live, one with the grasp of a hand and the other with a word spoken toward the tomb.

            Both women in today’s Holy Gospel reading are qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. One woman heard the Word from the Father and believed He could heal her by a mere touch of His clothing. The other had a father who believed Jesus could lay His Hand on her and she will live. Jesus did more than lay His Hand on her. He took her by the hand and raised her to life. He delivered her from the domain of darkness and transferred her back to life. She will die again, and so will her father. Both will live again in the resurrection. Both are partakers of the inheritance promised for them from the foundation of the world. This is their hope because of Jesus Christ.

            This is your hope as well because of Jesus Christ. There is no guarantee that He will walk into your bedroom, take you by the hand, and heal you or your loved one from death. Nevertheless, there is hope in death and illness for you because of Jesus Christ. He will wake you up from the sleep of death on Judgment Day and change this lowly body, this maggot sack in which we reside in the midst of life where we are surrounded by death. He will wake you up and change your body into a body like His. You will wake up as if you wake up from a lazy Sunday afternoon nap.

            This hope is yours now, but not yet. The consummation of all things remains in the future. In the meantime, we have a foretaste of the feast to come in the Divine Service. Eating and drinking His true Body and true Blood prepares us for the never-ending Supper in Paradise, where the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world is face-to-face with His children, His redeemed.

            The reality of death for a baptized Christian is that the grave is a bed and our rest there is a nap. The reality of illness for a baptized Christian is that full healing comes in Jesus Christ, Who will make our lowly bodies into glorious bodies. The prayer of today’s Chief Hymn is answered with an emphatic “yes” and “amen” in Jesus Christ. He will not leave us to the bitter pains of death. He comforts us in every need with the sure and certain hope of full healing and resurrection.

Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 22:15-22

            Biblical literacy is a terrible thing to waste. When people lose knowledge of Scripture, they lose, among other things, the bright light that shines over the difference between spiritual and secular rule. That is when we see encroachments on the part of the church into secular government. When the church and the state mingle together, great wars and tumults have resulted.

            Two centuries ago the King of Prussia in modern-day Germany decided to unify Protestant churches in his region. He insisted on one Protestant church united under one liturgy, organization, and even architecture. The stubborn Lutheran minority was coerced by military force, the confiscation of their churches, and the imprisonment or exile of their pastors. Many left Prussia. The main effect was that the government of Prussia had full control over church affairs, with the king himself recognized as the leading bishop.

            What happened to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s? When rulers and subjects ignore the divine light of Holy Scripture, nothing but trouble ensues. The kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world are to be well separated. Both realms are pleasing to God. It doesn’t matter if you have a monarchy or a republic. God commanded both realms. He sets leaders over the people to rule them. Sometimes rulers are hostile to Christians. Impious Nero was emperor of the Roman Empire when Saint Paul wrote to the church in Rome: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.

            God also arranged that both realms remain separate. The spiritual realm deals with Christians, citizens of the kingdom of God. Yes, we Christians are also citizens of the state, but the church deals with you insofar as you are a Christian. Our heavenly Father is concerned with the condition of your heart toward His gift of forgiveness and everlasting life in Jesus Christ. The state, on the other hand, doesn’t care whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, or the church of the flying spaghetti monster. They deal with citizens insofar as they are citizens. The state is concerned with governance, revenue, and protection of citizens. Religion, or the lack of it, is of no concern to Caesar.

            The church does not deal in taxation and protection. She deals with the preaching of the gospel, administration of the holy sacraments, exercise of the office of the keys, edifying the body of Christ and the like.

            Here is how the Augsburg Confession talks about the distinction of both realms: “Since the power of the Church grants eternal things, and is exercised only by the ministry of the Word, it does not interfere with civil government; no more than the art of singing interferes with civil government. For civil government deals with other things than does the Gospel. The civil rulers defend not minds, but bodies and bodily things against manifest injuries, and restrain men with the sword and bodily punishments in order to preserve civil justice and peace…. Let [the church] not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth.”

            It’s clear that Jesus teaches God and Caesar coexist, but in their own lanes. When it comes to living as a citizen, the laws of the land are the plumb line. The judgment of reason based on these laws prevails in the secular realm. Judges determine right and wrong based on these laws. When it comes to Scripture, justice according to Caesar is blind. In the church, however, Caesar’s laws do not prevail when it comes to your salvation. The only rule of faith in life among Christians in the spiritual realm in Holy Scripture. Jesus says in John chapter ten: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. Things go catastrophically wrong when you demand Scripture to determine tax laws and criminal proceedings, while you let Congress, the Illinois General Assembly, or even the aldermen of Momence determine what we believe as Christians.

            While both realms must be well separated, you can be a loyal subject of secular government and a companion of the kingdom of Christ. The gospel teaches an eternal righteousness of the heart. It does not destroy the State or the family, but requires that both realms are preserved as ordinances of God, and that charity be practiced in both the spiritual and the secular realm. You are necessarily bound to obey secular authorities and laws. The only exception is when Caesar commands you to sin. When that rare occasion occurs, we remember Peter and the apostles’ confession before the council in Acts chapter five: We must obey God rather than men.

            When you see the necessity to live as both a citizen of Caesar and a child of God redeemed in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, you also see that you are free to serve both God and men. If you have the gift, you could run for a secular office. A Christian may serve as a soldier to fight in just wars. Living as a citizen in the secular realm and doing good for your neighbor is a true good work among Christians.

            As a citizen, you also serve secular authority in the best way by paying your taxes. You can gripe about corruption and theft, but you also recognize that your tax dollars help protect you and serve for your benefit. Saint Paul reminds you: Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

            As we draw near to our national day of thanksgiving, you also serve secular authority as both a citizen and a child of God by praying for our leaders. They hold difficult stations in life. They bear the sword and protect us on our behalf, whether as President, Governor, soldier, sailor, or even mayor or a police officer, fireman, or paramedic. You may not agree with their politics, but you nevertheless pray for them. They are God’s gift for you, just as pastors are God’s gift for you in the spiritual realm.

            Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. Easy to say, but very hard to do, especially when you are tempted to mix both realms. When Caesar and God stay in their lanes and do as God bids them, you are protected from harm and provided with eternal riches and bountiful joy, each according to its realm, by a loving and gracious God Who cares for you.

Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 18:21-35

            “Earned. Never Given.” If you are a United States Marine, you know exactly what that means. The Marine Corps doesn’t merely throw around the name “Marine”. You have to earn that name with hard work. When I was a younger man, I saw that phrase on the side of semi trailers with a picture of a Mameluke sword. I thought it would be cool to have one of those until I realized that sword was earned and never given. It would be easier becoming a minister than becoming a Marine. So I carry the sword of the Spirit rather than the sword of the Marine.

            “Earned. Never Given” is not unique to the Marine Corps. This is the motto of every spiritual bookkeeper. Before you thank yourself for not being a spiritual bookkeeper, you must admit that you are one, and so am I. So is Saint Peter. He asks Jesus, Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus responds, I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Some Bible translations say seventy times seven, or 490 times. The fact that Jesus uses a number makes us think that there is a divine mandate to limiting forgiveness to at least seventy-seven and at most 490 times. After that number is exhausted, then it’s on to “Earned. Never Given”.

            Forgiveness is treated as a commodity rather than the way we live as Christians. “You’re forgiven” should readily spring from our mouths when someone apologizes to us. Sadly, though, we treat forgiveness as Marines treat their vocation: “Earned. Never Given”. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant makes us uncomfortable. Take the man who owed the king 10,000 talents. A talent is a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages. It would take the man 200,000 years to pay off his debt. The average lifespan of a man right now is not quite eighty years. You can see this fellow will never pay off his debt.

            What comes out of the servant’s mouth? Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. A loan officer would laugh at that statement. If you think that plea is funny, then how do you respond to the master of that servant? He took pity on the servant, released him, and forgave the debt. Now who is laughing? It’s enough to drive a bookkeeper insane. No one in their right mind would forgive a debt that takes 200,000 years to pay off. That’s dependable income. It’s a debt. The principle of debt is to pay it off so that everything is equal again. Yet this master is moved by the debtor’s request that he rips the books in half and sets him free.

            We would be totally cool with Jesus if the parable ended right there. It even fits with the picture of mankind’s salvation. Our debt of sin is such that it is impossible for us to pay it back. Our currency is no good here. Someone must take care of the debt. The master takes care of it by cancelling it. It comes at great cost to him, but he does it anyway. For our Father in heaven, the cost is His only-begotten Son, Who sheds His blood and cleanses us from all sin. Everyone loves a happy ending.

            Alas, that’s not how this parable ends; else it wouldn’t be called the parable of the unforgiving servant. The parable ends in a bookkeeper’s bonanza. The same man forgiven of a debt that would take 200,000 years to pay back now comes upon a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, a debt that would take 100 work days to pay back. It’s manageable debt. Don’t tell that to the newly-freed servant. Seizing the other servant, he began to choke him, saying, “Pay what you owe.” So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.

            Here’s where we want to shake our heads and shame the man choking his fellow servant. Come on, buddy, don’t you realize how small that debt is compared to the debt that was forgiven you? No, he doesn’t realize it because he is a bookkeeper at heart. He’s the kind of person who keeps track of how many apologies are made to him. You would think that after the one-hundredth time this guy has had to forgive him that the debtor would get the hint and stop doing things for which requires an apology. Even when there is forgiveness given after an apology, you can be certain a mental note is being taken. One day those apologies are going to fall on deaf ears. There should have been a rapid change of behavior. The line of credit at the bank of apologies will soon expire. Fix yourself before it’s too late.

            When you forgive others, you may forget that you, too, are in need of forgiveness. The psalmist writes in Psalm 130: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? Not one of us could stand. Would you rather that God start marking iniquities? You wouldn’t make it through a day, let alone an hour or even a minute without Him running out of room in His book to mark your sins.

            The psalmist continues: But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. The type of fear described here is not being afraid, but being in awe that the Lord does not mark our iniquities. That is why you, like Him, also do not mark iniquities. It’s understandable why you get tired of forgiving others. If only people could understand how tedious it is to be sinned against!

            Our Lord thinks something of it when you refuse to forgive others as you have been forgiven. You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers until he should pay all his debt. When you are in his shoes, you’ll never get out of that debt.

            Jesus, however, stood in your shoes. He cancelled the debt you owed by shedding His blood and dying on the cross for your sake. He came forth from that grave, leaving your debt paid in full and giving you new life, new hope, and the certainty of eternal life with no debt hanging over your head. As He forgives you, so you forgive others. This forgiveness He gives you, and you give to others, does not work like the Marines statement of “Earned. Never Given”. Instead it is “Given. Never Earned”. Everything for nothing. No need for books of reckoning here. Everything goes in the credit column, written in the blood of Jesus Christ.

All Saints Day – Revelation 7:2-17

            Tribes. That’s the popular way to describe with whom you belong. “I’m with Trump.” “I’m with Biden.” “I’m with none of the above.” “I’m a Lutheran.” “I’m an atheist.” “Meh.” “I wouldn’t belong to a tribe that would have me as a member.”

            Even if you don’t find yourself in one of these groups, you belong to a tribe that matters: the body of Christ. This body is seen every time God gathers His people around Word and Sacrament, around the altar, pulpit, and font. God is at work feeding His people with the Good News of the victory of death and hell that His Son Jesus Christ has wrought for us.

            There is another body that, as the Anglican Church says in their beloved Christmas Lessons and Carols service, is “on another shore and in a greater light”. It is those people whom our attention is drawn on All Saints Day. This festival is more than commemorating holy men and women of God from ages past. All Saints Day focuses on all those within and without our families, our tribes, who have persevered through this life and now rest in the Lord Jesus, awaiting the Day of Resurrection when we all shall be forever with the Lord in the new heavens and the new earth.

            Revelation chapter seven gives us a picture of the open heaven. Holy Scripture is mostly silent about what the life of the world to come will look like; let alone how things will be for all eternity. We get a snapshot of eternity in John’s vision in today’s first reading. Like all pictures, it is a moment in time. Yet this moment in time transcends clock time. Here we see time in another way, God’s way. Clock time is irrelevant when it comes to how God keeps time. Thank God clock time is irrelevant because you won’t mind standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.

            Palm branches should put you in mind of Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem to suffer and die as our Savior. He is welcomed as a conquering hero, yet He rides on a donkey, sitting on other people’s garments, while palm branches are strewn in His way. Not the triumphal parade you would associate with a conquering hero. Still He comes to you, ready to conquer the devil and put an end to death. Still He comes to you, shedding His blood that covers your sins and declares you righteous, holy, and innocent before the Father in heaven. The saints of God stand before the throne and the Lamb wearing white robes and waving palm branches because Jesus Christ has given them a place before Him and His Father in His death and resurrection.

            That is why the multitude cries out with a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! Take a moment and picture those in your families and among your friends who now stand before the throne and the Lamb. Perhaps you see them as you remember them. Maybe you see them as you knew them when you were young. Maybe they are as you last saw them, old and feeble or perhaps in the prime of life. They now stand in their perfect, heavenly bodies. You know who they are, but in a new way. You know them as one of the tribe of the servants of God. This tribe transcends friendship, marriage, and even family.

            Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? It’s hard to answer the question because we are seeing things from a new perspective. We’re used to our tribes. This snapshot of eternity is completely different. Even Saint John has to answer the question: Sir, you know. You tell me. So he does.

            These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Living through this year we see with fresh eyes what it means to live in the great tribulation. You stand beside the bed of a loved one who is dying before your eyes. You get a phone call telling you your friend has suddenly died. You hear of someone who has suffered much with few family members or friends who finally dies, alone and without even one family member or friend to mourn their death. Life is the great tribulation. Sin is the great tribulation. Having death before your eyes at all times is the great tribulation.

            For a world that lives outside of Jesus Christ, the great tribulation is a pit of misery. There is nothing to look forward to after you assume room temperature. Life is over. Done. Final. There is no hope because there is no God Who gives you the victory. All you have are memories and one day those memories will disappear.

            For those in Christ, however, we grieve, yes, but not as those without hope. The great tribulation may be a pit of misery, but now that Christ is risen all misery is turned into eternal joy. Here’s how the hymn “Behold A Host, Arrayed in White” puts it:

Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand,
A priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
On earth they wept through bitter years;
Now God has wiped away their tears,
Transformed their strife
To heavenly life,
And freed them from their fears.
They now enjoy the Sabbath rest,
The heavenly banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord,
At festive board
Himself is host and guest.

            In the visible dimension you see yourself and others coming from their pew to stand before this altar to receive the Lord’s Supper. This is the feast, we sing, of victory of our God. There is another dimension that you cannot see. That dimension is all those who have gone before you in the faith, those you know and those you never knew, who also dine with you at festive board. What gets me is that fellow members of the body of Christ with whom we had disagreements here on earth, who have since fallen asleep in Jesus, now stand before the throne and the Lamb praising God with us as the Church Triumphant. All disagreements, all family feuds, and all hurt feelings about secular or sacred affairs, are cast asunder and left behind. They now enjoy the Sabbath rest, the heavenly banquet of the blest.

            That great banquet awaits us, too. While we wait in the great tribulation, we fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. We fix our eyes on the great love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. We fix our eyes on the kingdom of heaven, ours right now for Christ’s sake, yet not yet in its fullness. Even if we don’t fit into one of the tribes we form here on earth, we belong by God’s grace to the tribe of fellow redeemed who sing the victory of the Lamb. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!

Reformation Day – Romans 3:19-28

            Paul’s epistle to Christians in Rome is fun to read. Even if you aren’t a fan of doctrine and dogma, you have to admire Saint Paul’s rhetorical skills. Everything fits together. Take some time this week to read Romans. Let the words Paul writes splash over you like ocean waves on a beach in the summertime. You can always go back and read it more in-depth. Romans is a tour-de-force of Christian teaching, right up there with his letter to the Galatian Christians.

            Paul’s main idea is I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Before he gets to the heart of the matter, however, he spends two and a half chapters talking about the wrath of God. Paul is unrelenting in his examination of what the law says to both the Jew and the Gentile.

            The Jew wants to think that because he has Torah, the fullness of God’s law, it is enough. Paul says that’s not so. Yes, you have the book, my Jewish brother or sister, but do you obey the law? Do you love God with all your heart, your soul, your strength, and your mind? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Well, do you? Ah, that’s what I thought. You don’t. Oh, and you Gentiles, you’re not off the hook either. You, too, are guilty before God of transgressing His law. No one can say anything about the law except that it condemns. The law kills. God’s wrath has no mercy for sin.

            But now. Something new has entered the scene. Paul no longer talks about the wrath of God over sin and how it silences every tongue. Those two little words, but now, change everything. But now apart from Law the righteousness of God has been made manifest, being testified to by the Torah and the prophets — but the righteousness of God [made manifest] through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ unto all the ones believing. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come, Paul says in Second Corinthians chapter five.

            The old age, the age of wrath over sin, has no power to save. God’s people in the old age clinged to a promise, a promise they would not live to see but still believed would happen. God will save His people from their sins by sending a Savior. The Savior, the Messiah, the Christ, will bring with Him a new age: an age of peace, joy, eternal life, and a good conscience.

            Paul continues, for all have sinned and are lacking the glory of God, being declared in a right relationship freely by his grace through the redemption which is by Christ Jesus, whom God set forth, through his faithfulness, as an atoning sacrifice by his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness. Though we are sinners, God declares us to be in a right relationship with Him. Note Who runs the verbs here. God does the declaring. When He speaks, it happens. God has spoken in His law, through His prophets, and now in His Son, Jesus Christ.

            How has our heavenly Father ushered in this new age of a right relationship with Him? By His grace through the redemption which is by Christ Jesus, whom God set forth, through His faithfulness, as an atoning sacrifice by his blood, for a demonstration of His righteousness. Note the pronouns now. His grace. His faithfulness. His righteousness. Paul ties it to faith when he tells the Christians in Ephesus: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

            So what does this have to do with the Reformation? Everything! The paraments are red for Reformation because this festival is a festival of the Holy Spirit. We confess the Holy Spirit works through means. He works in water, in bread and wine, and especially in the preached Word. Preaching in sixteenth century Europe was awful, if there even was a sermon in the Mass. Christians had no idea what they believed as Christians. They knew that they went to Mass, saw the priest do his thing, paid attention at the right places, and received what they desired: forgiveness. Yet this forgiveness was tied partially to what they did and especially to what the priest was doing in the Mass. They couldn’t explain it to you, but they knew where they had to be to get the grace.

            Martin Luther struggled with his own sins. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word, Luther saw that the church had lost her way. He didn’t want to start a revolution. He just happened to live at a time when the printing press was changing society by making books easier to read and cheaper to buy. All Martin wanted was to let the Gospel be proclaimed the way Holy Scripture made it plain. Let the bird fly. Watch the Word bring the dead back to life. Watch the Word of the Lord grow the church as it did in the apostolic age.

            Luther made the main thing the main thing in the Christian Church. You are put in a right relationship with God by the atoning sacrifice of God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the perfect life you cannot live. Jesus alone kept the law for you. Jesus, the living Word, shed His blood that redeems the sinful world from the devil. Jesus brings forgiveness and life. Jesus brings a new age that continues into the life of the world to come. All this is yours by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. He did the heavy lifting for you. He paid the price for you. He gives you life in His death and His resurrection.

            These ten verses from Romans chapter three can be difficult to grasp. There are a lot of interdependent clauses in long sentences. You have to pay attention to the logic of the argument. It helps to be a regular reader of Holy Scripture to get the back-story. Nevertheless, each year around this time we get a fresh reminder of the new age in which we life. This new age is one of every grace and blessing from our heavenly Father, Who gives us His Son Jesus Christ as the perfect sin offering. By His undeserved love shown to us in Jesus, through believing that Jesus is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world, we are in a right relationship with God. He forgives our sins. He brings us through death into eternal life.

            The bird continues to fly. The Lord continues to grow His Church when and where He wills. The heart of the matter remains in the new age that is the but now in which we live. But now apart from Law the righteousness of God has been made manifest, being testified to by the Torah and the prophets — the righteousness of God [made manifest] through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ unto all the ones believing.

Feast of Saint Luke, Evangelist – Luke 10:1-9

            The words of Jesus to the seventy-two others sent to say the kingdom of God has come near to you is a good reminder for you and for me about the pattern of apostolic ministry. Only Saint Luke records this sending of the seventy-two. Perhaps he alone writes about it because his gospel’s audience is chiefly to Gentiles. Luke is keen to show us that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. This is the content of the apostolic preaching. This is what it means to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near to you.

            Jesus says the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Why would you want to pray for anyone to enter the preaching office? You know well the freedoms one loses when one takes up the mantle of proclaiming Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. Everything the preacher says and does is put under a microscope and analyzed. The preacher’s family lives in a glass house. Every move they make, every word they say, and every thing they do is analyzed and discussed around the dinner table at home, at the beauty parlor, or at the coffee shop.

            Another reason why the laborers are few is because the laborer goes into great debt to learn his trade. Even with my tuition covered by generous grants and gifts, I left seminary nearly $20,000 in debt because of room and board, as well as purchasing books for my library. A pastor’s salary is enough to live simply, but it is hard for some men to pay back their debt in a timely fashion. When the laborer is at work, he is given a stipend by the congregation he serves. He will not get rich, but he will be able to provide for his family. Compared to what other vocations do and how those vocations are paid, however, he does make a sacrifice to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.

            When he proclaims the good news, he also finds the harvest is indeed plenty, as Jesus says, but that harvest is more and more unwilling to be harvested. Perhaps it is because the world sees the message of the cross to be foolishness, just as Saint Paul says in First Corinthians chapter one. Perhaps it is because the world has a distorted view of the kingdom of God. The church hasn’t helped clarify that distortion by stressing not the forgiveness of sins but a moral code of conduct or by encouraging self-righteous behavior among the faithful. What is more, the church sometimes gives up proclaiming the kingdom of God and instead proclaims making the world a better place, as if there will be no life of the world to come. People then turn their back to the kingdom of God and ignore the joy set before them in what Jesus has done for their sins.

            We are inclined to change our Lord’s words here to “the harvest is barren and the laborers have disappeared”. Things seem to go from bad to worse when we hear Jesus say go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Who wants to be a lamb surrounded by a pack of wolves? The only result of that confrontation is a slaughter and an easy meal. That is the lot of some preachers of the gospel. They distinguish both law and gospel to their hearers, and their hearers don’t want to hear either of them. These hearers have itching ears that want to hear anything except what Scripture says. The poor little lamb who is the preacher of God’s righteousness stands no chance among them.

            Jesus then hints that they should stick around. A quick Google search shows that the average stay of a pastor in a congregation is four years. Another search shows the third year of a pastor’s tenure is the most critical year. If he makes it through that third year, there’s a good chance he will stay for a while. Short-term pastorates are usually a sign of an unhealthy congregation. The average tenure of a pastor in this congregation’s history is seven years. The average stay of a pastor over the last fifty years is eight years. That’s remarkable.

            That statistic shows us two things related to our Lord’s words in Luke chapter ten. The first thing it shows is that the laborer deserves his wages. I’m not rich, but I’m not poor. My family doesn’t have fancy cars, but we have cars that are dependable. We pay our bills on time. We are blessed to have enough food and then some. That cannot be said about some pastors and their families. Perhaps you’ve heard some horror stories. I’ve heard my share. None of them can be said about this congregation.

            Before we start patting ourselves on the back to congratulate ourselves, however, let’s remember why there is joy and confidence between shepherd and sheep in this place. It is because the kingdom of heaven has come near to you. More specifically according to the original language of the New Testament, the kingdom of heaven has come upon you. No matter who stands in this pulpit, the message preached here is clear. God has visited His people in Jesus Christ. He visits His people in the proclamation of His kingdom. His kingdom is one of power, the power that creates and sustains all things. His kingdom is also one of glory, the future glory of eternal life that is ours right now in Jesus Christ and in His victory over sin and death.

            The kingdom of God is also a kingdom of grace. Earthly rulers often rule with tyranny and like a despot. They reign in the fashion of Lord Acton’s famous remark that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men”. The great man, the God-man Jesus Christ, does not reign this way. He reigns over His church with the disposition of undeserved, unearned, one-way love for sinners like you and me. He forgives our sins, and there are plenty of our sins to forgive. He strengthens our faith as we hear the proclamation of His Father’s kingdom among us, as we rejoice and live in our baptism, and as we eat and drink Christ’s true Body and true Blood.

            The kingdom of God has come near to you. The apostolic preaching of the cross of Jesus Christ and His glorious resurrection from the dead is the heart and soul of His church. He leaves His beloved bride in the hands of sinners like you and me. He calls and ordains sinful men like me to hand out His gifts of forgiveness and life. In spite of us, the song of righteousness in Jesus goes on. The harvest is plentiful, the laborers are few, and the messengers are sent like sheep among wolves. Yet, as Isaiah says in today’s Old Testament reading: a highway shall be there,and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 22:34-46

            “Where’s the love?” I’ve heard this said more than once by people who want to make love into a law. These are people who exercise love as a license to let the other do whatever they want. This is love as recklessness, a different kind of recklessness than the one-way love God has for us in Jesus Christ. This kind of love is a recklessness that lives and let live. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to say no. Yet no for some is the ultimate unloving word.

            Saint Paul says in Galatians chapter five that the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The point is not keeping a set of rules or keeping pure. The point is a heart that doesn’t think of itself, but of others. Love of God with heart, soul, and mind leads to love of neighbor.

            The law is about understanding that being human means giving yourself to the other. In other words, being human means to love and to sacrifice for others not for the sake of gain, but because that is the nature of love. Selfishness is dangerous and contrary to love. To be selfish, to hold onto possessions, time, and money because it’s what’s best for me or what’s best for anything is not human. Yes, it’s what everyone else does. However, that doesn’t make selfishness right. God did not create you to be selfish. God created you to be happy in Him. Being happy in Him means giving to others over self. Adam and Eve gave to each other. They loved each other. Their love grew into the family called the human race.

            Love for neighbor is the second half of the great commandment. Loving, sacrificing, and giving to whomever God places in our path is a gift from God. The month of October is budget preparation month in our congregation. The Budget Committee will soon meet to determine how best to spend your offerings to sustain the preaching of the Gospel in this place. When it comes to making difficult decisions, the Budget Committee keeps in mind some important questions you should keep in mind when it comes to determining your tithe: “How does God want me to use the gifts He gives me in my life? How does God want me to use my time, talents, and money?” The simple answer is that God wants you to use everything you have and everything you are in service to God and to neighbor.

            If you look at the life you lead and the way you use the things God gives you, you must answer an honest no to whether or not you are selfish. You know when it comes to loving others over self you fall short. Sinful human nature turns in on itself in order not to ask, “How may I serve my neighbor?” but instead ask, “How will they serve me?” It is our nature to love and give, but that nature is so corrupt that we barely recognize it.

            To understand true love and true self-giving, you look into the very heart of God. God’s nature is to give, create, and sacrifice for the sake of His love. This is Who God is. His nature and character is to love you, take care of you, and give you what you need. Part of what you need is the Law. You need to recognize your sin and weakness. You need to see that God alone helps you.

            God’s final Word for you is not “you shall”. God’s final word for you is a word of love. He gives everything for you. He gives His only-begotten Son to die so that you, His wayward child, would have life in His Name. That is love. That is giving. That is a glimpse into the heart of God.

            Jesus has this teachable moment with the Pharisees to show them that He is Messiah, the son of David and the Son of God. Jesus became true man in order to reach down into our nature. Jesus was also true God in order to redeem the human race. Behold what wondrous love the heavenly Father has for you! David’s son is David’s Lord! The Pharisees wouldn’t understand God’s nature. They thought God’s nature was to be waited upon; to receive our honor and our worship. God’s true nature is to give, and give, and give, and give to the point of His own death. That is love.

            The Psalmist writes in Psalm 116: What shall I render to the LORD for all His benefits toward me? I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows to the LORD now in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the LORD’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem. Another way to answer the Psalmist’s question is in the Epistle to the Hebrews: Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. God is well pleased with the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving from your lips, hands, and pocketbook not because you are good at what you do. God is well pleased because this sacrifice of thanksgiving flows from the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for your sin.

            Where’s the love? God’s love is here for you in the preaching of His Word, in the distribution of His very body and blood, and in His forgiving grace given in absolution and baptism. He gives His love freely because God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.