Monthly Archives: October 2014

Betray Your Love, But Not Your Faith

A rough translation of the final paragraph of “Ein Abfall” (A Defection), C.F.W. Walther’s commentary in “Der Lutheraner” concerning the taking leave of Eduard Preuß from the Evangelical Lutheran Church to the Roman Catholic Church in 1871. Translation by DMJ.

You ask, dear reader, whether we regret to have accepted the unfortunate Preuß and trusted him as long as we could? We answer: No, we do not regret it. The Christian way is that they let their love be easily betrayed, but never their faith. It is true: mistrustful, suspicious dispositions in experience usually win their case because men are so evil; but that is why the mistrustful are not on solid ground. Love, as long as it can, believes the best of the neighbor. We therefore have only one desire: that God, Whose door of grace always remains open in this life, have mercy on the one deeply fallen and remove him, if not sooner, even in the hour of death, from the idol that he now worships and calls Mary, and be brought around again, and may be delivered as a brand from the fire, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator, to Whom be all praise and glory in time and eternity. Amen.

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For You, From Him

Calvary is for you, from Him, a gift. Blessed are those who are given to. They are “the poor in spirit” of the first Beatitude. If there is any hope of deliverance, it can only come from God. The poor in spirit wait on the Lord. As He gives, they are given to. His giving to them is not blocked or hindered by what they h ave crammed together and would use for bargaining. “God gives into empty hands,” says Augustine, not into hands full of what we would boast of before God. There is no room for the gifts to be given into. Sometimes, with drastic mercy, our Father empties our hands so there may be room for His gifts. Blessed are those who are given to by God. Blessed are they who receive their death as a gift from His hands. Nothing is outside His hands. Despite the pain and perplexity of any way of dying, we are never outside His hands, and within His hands and from His hands our deaths are a gift by way of which He brings us to the fullness of His promises. “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

In the Gospel this word blessed is always in relation to Jesus. It rings with gladness, as is pointed to by the translation that says, “Happy are those who know their need of God.” But happiness is often something so fleeting or shallow, and here is something from our Lord, a lively, joyful gift for all our living and all our dying. Not spoonfuls, not bucketfuls, but the “river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1). “And of His fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16). You were “buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). You who were dead in sin God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our sins, having blotted out the charges of the Law against us. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross. “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).

– Norman Nagel, Sermon for All Saints Day (Matthew 5:1-12), from Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel, page 317.

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Jesus Just Bloody Well Died

In Noel Coward’s play This Happy Breed, a man’s son is killed in the war and his friends try to help him with pretense talk and euphemisms for death. Out of the emptiness of his heart, he finally cries, “He didn’t pass on, pass out, or pass over; he just bloody well died.” Such honesty can crumble a man. His son was all that mattered to him. What is the point of going on living when the one most precious in all the world has died? Such grief is possible only when we know that life is to have a point, meaning, and worth, but you cannot read that looking into a grave. This we have to face, yet death is a fact that, for all its finality, is not the final fact.

You have not faced death fully unless you have faced the death on Calvary. Jesus was, in fact, a good man. Two bad men were dying along with Him. One of them acknowledged the truth, “We have it coming to us, but not this one.” Jesus was different, yet He was on the center cross, dying along with them. He was not guilty. He cries, “My God, My god, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). That is ultimate death, the forsakenness of God. The death of no more brain waves, breath, or heartbeat has its final weight not in the nullification of any worth, meaning, or happiness that we may have known or hoped for, but in the fact that we are accountable for our lives. This fact is acknowledged also by those who deny God, for they would still justify themselves, claim some meaning, worth, or at least a little happiness, and make a case for themselves.

The greater the insistences, the greater the uncertainty, for we do not do the final judging. Who does? Today’s Epistle answers, “God and the Lamb.” Which of the two will be your judge? God? What God? The of our God talk, of our construction or definition? If you insist, that kind of God will be your judge before whom you make your case. Yet they are not separate; there is one throne, the throne of God and the Lamb. “And they shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads” (Revelation 22:4). On your forehead? Yes, for His name was put on you with the water of Baptism, as we confess with the cross put on your forehead and on your heart, the cross of the Lamb who was slain, the Lamb who bore the sins of the world, the Lamb who bore your sins for you in your place and was forsaken of God, where your sins put you but where He was for you in your place.

When Jesus cries, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” have God and the Lamb come apart, opposite each other? Yes, for the Lamb is where we are, opposite God, in our place as sinners. He bears our punishment of sin, the forsakenness of God. Anyone bearing his or her own sin is finally lost, but not Jesus. He is bearing not His own sin, but ours; He is not opposite God, but doing the saving will of the Father. He won’t let go of us, and He won’t let me let go of God. Out of the ultimate darkness of ultimate death comes the cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus is through. He has done it. Then He goes through the little death also. The one who was crucified, the Lamb who was slain, is the risen one who sits on “the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:3). From that throne God is for us as the Lamb is for us, no other God for us but as He is for us in the Lamb.

– Dr. Norman Nagel, Sermon for All Saints Day (Matthew 5:1-12) from Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel, pages 314-315.

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Reformation Day (observed) – 2 Kings 22:8

And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.”

The days of exile in Babylon were over. The remnants of the two southern tribes in the region of Judah returned to Jerusalem to rebuild their ruined city. The one great building left ruined for so long was the temple. So many kings of Judah either paid lip service to Almighty God while worshiping idols, or were rank idolaters who gave God no glory. Then came King Josiah in the line of succession. Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem…. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

When Josiah turned 26 years old, he ordered the temple repaired. His orders were to spare no expense. Make the temple a splendor of holiness for the Lord God. One day, while repairs continued, the high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” The way the writer of Second Kings puts it, it seems as if this discovery was at best anticipated or at worst a surprise. You would expect great fanfare at finding something precious that was lost for many years. Shaphan eventually tells King Josiah, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king. When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes.

There’s the expected reaction! Josiah tells Shaphan, Go, inquire of the LORD for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the LORD that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us. The first reaction to the Book of the Law of the Lord, the Torah, is repentance. King Josiah didn’t think the book was cool, yet needed to be sold on eBay to make some money for temple repairs. It was time to repent and believe the promises of God, especially the promise of Messiah, the coming Savior from the Father, Who would make full atonement of sin for His people.

So what does the finding of the Torah in the temple ruins have to do with the Reformation of the Church? Everything! Martin Luther had to deal with idolatry, worship of the saints, worship of relics, the idolatrous Mass, and idolatrous works that took focus away from Christ’s work and toward man’s work. The pope’s attempts to rebuild the temple, so to speak, were church councils that more or less stirred up more trouble rather than made peace. Then Pope Leo the Tenth thought it wise to construct a new church in Vatican City, demanding indulgences, forgiveness of sins through paying money, from the faithful in order to build his opulent basilica.

Meanwhile, in an Augustinian monastery in what is now modern-day Germany, Martin Luther, a priest, monk, and Old Testament professor, read the Bible. In reading Sacred Scripture, Luther was put in his right mind concerning how he could stand before an angry God. It is written in Habakkuk chapter two that the righteous shall live by his faith. This correlates with Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul teaches that the righteous shall live by faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done for sinners. No Mass, no prayers to saints, and no external keeping of man-made laws saves man. Only Christ and His blood and righteousness. Believing in Jesus brings forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

Luther taught and preached this freedom in Jesus. The Pope wanted none of it. Eventually Luther was condemned to die as a heretic, a false teacher who should be murdered in cold blood and his teaching erased from the minds of men. Yet the Word that Luther proclaimed still remains. The printing press spread his writings across Europe. Luther was able to translate Scripture into German and, with the printing press, get the Bible into the hands of people who had only heard Scripture in worship, and that in Latin, not German. People’s clothes were torn as they repented and believed the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. Consciences were eased. Forgiveness was distributed in preaching and the Sacraments. Luther, in the end, really did nothing. The Holy Spirit working through the Scriptures did everything.

Today, in the year of our Lord 2014, the Reformation continues. Every day we, like Hilkiah, rediscover the Book of the Law of the Lord, the Torah, proclaiming God’s hatred of sin and His love of righteousness. Daily we, as baptized children of God, are repented by this Word of punishment for sin. We daily die to sin in our baptism and rise from the water a new creation, washed clean and righteous in Christ’s blood. Daily we believe anew the radical love and mercy God has for us because of Jesus Christ. No longer are we shacked by deeds of our own or by asking dead believers to pray for our salvation. Christ has taken care of it all on our behalf. You are free. You live because Jesus lives.

Everything that happens in this holy house proclaims that Jesus is the subject of the verbs of salvation. The text of the Divine Service proclaims Jesus obtains our freedom from sin, death, and the devil. He proffers this salvation to us in hearing the preached Word, in our baptism, and in His holy Supper. Through these earthly means the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His Church and keeps her with Jesus Christ in the true faith. Daily and richly your sins are forgiven, as are the sins of all the faithful in Christ.

Yet the rhythm of the saints is like the directions on a shampoo bottle: lather, rinse, and repeat. By the time Josiah was able to restore pure worship of God, he died. His successor, King Jehoahaz, again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. The need for Reformation began anew. So it was in Luther’s time. His death in 1546 brought with it turbulent times that continue to this day. There are still battles waging among Luther’s heirs as to how the Reformation of the Church should continue. Some work for peace with Rome. This is a salutary thing. However, this peace comes with a price. Rome won’t give up on God and man working together for salvation. Some of Luther’s heirs are content to let Rome have their way and wink at this fundamental difference.

The passing rain shower of the Gospel has left Germany and, alas, Europe in general. The same rain shower is drying up over our country as well. Luther’s heirs here are divided on what to do with the Gospel. Do we package it to look pleasing to people while hiding the real message of repentance? Do we stay the course and watch people reject the Gospel because it is “unloving” or “irrelevant” or because it “doesn’t fit my needs”? Or do we give up, give in, and bow the knee to false gods? Here we recall the final stanza of Luther’s most famous hymn. Here we recall what is given us to do in these gray and latter days of Christ’s Church on earth:

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

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Preach Christ Instead of Preaching About God

The Lutheran assertion that we have just now mentioned, that preaching, in so far as it is Biblical preaching, is God’s own speech to men, is very difficult to maintain in practice. Instead it is very easy to slip into the idea that preaching is only speech about God. Such a slip, once made, gradually alters the picture of God, so that he becomes the far-off deistic God who is remote from the preached word and is only spoken about as we speak about someone who is absent. It does not help to say of God that he is God the Creator, and is near to those who are in distress, if the word of the preacher is not his converse with the men who are assembled there. God is creative and near simply by speaking his Word.

– Gustaf Wingren, “The Living Word” pages 19-20

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Preaching, Kerygma, Death, and Resurrection

Biblical students in non-Lutheran countries who see the New Testament kerygma as centering on the fact of the death and resurrection of Christ may very well be unaware that in using these twin terms, death and resurrection, they have penetrated to the very core of Luther’s theology, to the centre around which all that Luther says revolves, as a wheel on its axle. That applies not only to Luther himself but generally to the whole Lutheran Reformation as it was carried through in several European countries in the sixteenth century. The Reformation principle for preaching was very clear and simple: “to preach” means to convey the content of the Scriptures to listeners, to say that which the Bible itself is saying. God speaks in the Bible, and when the Bible is proclaimed God speaks to men from the pulpit. God’s Word is Christ. so when the Gospel sounds forth it is the living Christ come down among men who listen in faith. If the effort of the modern Biblical theologians is in the right direction, then Luther’s preaching in the years when the Reformation was beginning stands forth as an unusually pure declaration of the New Testament kerygma. Moreover, this sixteenth-century preaching is, in its basic form and type, quite definitely congregational preaching. The Early Christian kerygma of Christ’s work in death and resurrection has demonstrated, as no other factor in human history has, that it holds the power of renewing the Sunday preaching. In analysing the essential nature of preaching it is impossible to overlook that. The message of the cross and the resurrection is the main pillar, not only of missionary preaching, but of preaching in general.

– Gustaf Wingren, “The Living Word”, page 19

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The Reformation Is About Joy, Not Sadness

Every year about this time someone writes about the Reformation being a time of sadness and not of joy. Georg Stöckhardt says balderdash to this notion.

October 31, 1517 is a day to remember for all eternity for the kingdom of God on earth. On that day the work of the Reformation began. The shape of Western Christendom was completely changed by this work. The Evangelical Lutheran Church, the church of the pure Word and Sacrament, came to light and was a city of God on the mountain, a Zion of the Lord, and by God’s grace has remained to this very day. Though there are no lack of those who regard the Reformation as something deplorable, as a misfortune. They point out the fracturing and splitting up which has occurred in the Western Church since the Reformation, whereas before this had been like one flock under one shepherd, namely the pope. We cannot let ourselves alone be misled by this. We cannot let this interfere with our joy. The Reformation did not cause this splitting up, that we no less heartily lament, but the disobedience of so many toward God’s pure Word caused the Reformation. Luther’s reformation of the Church is and remains a great miracle of God.

– From an outline for a sermon on Revelation 14:6-7. Translated by DMJ

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Trinity 18 – Matthew 22:34-46

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Two questions asked by two different people. Both questions are important. Get both answers wrong and you distort the Christian faith into another false religion of morals and niceties. Get one out of two answers wrong and you still distort Scripture to your peril. Answer both correctly and you distinguish and understand God’s Law and God’s Gospel.

These questions are not child’s play. Which is the great commandment in the Law? It would be easy for Jesus to answer the way He does in Matthew chapter 23. Jesus pronounces multiple woes over the scribes and Pharisees. Both groups miss the forest for the trees. Jesus’ opportunity to get His shots in comes later. For now, He focuses on the great commandment: love.

Our Lord’s answer to the Pharisees’ question is love. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

That last sentence condemns the Pharisees. They once taught God’s people the Law and the Prophets in order to keep them connected to God’s promise of the Messiah. Over time, the focus had shifted from Messiah to dos and don’ts. Do eat certain foods. Don’t have anything to do with Gentiles. Wash your hands, utensils, plates, and cups a certain way. 613 dos and don’ts were taught. Messiah faded into the background. Soon it seemed as if Messiah equaled 613 dos and don’ts. The institution of being a Jew got in the way of what it meant to be a Jew: to live in the certain hope of the Second Adam Who comes to make all things new.

The Pharisees taught love, but it was a love of self. They taught a love of an institution rather than the love of God. The words of Moses in today’s Old Testament reading are directed to the Pharisees as much as to you and to me: Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.

You are a sojourner. Here you have no continuing city. You look to God as the Giver of every good earthly and spiritual thing. God gives you the ability to be shrewd when it comes to your money and possessions. Yet your love for both God and neighbor falls short of God’s expectation. You try to repair your circumcised heart with stitches of self-preservation and self-righteousness. You love the institution of Christianity, but could do without actually living the Christian faith in your vocations. Your love for both God and neighbor is at your convenience. You bribe God. You demand partiality, especially when it benefits your needs.

So what do you think about the Christ? Is He your divine enabler who comes to make sure you do as you’re told? Does He come to point the finger at all “those” people who don’t do as you do? Or, worse yet, is He not Who He says He is?

The Pharisees get our Lord’s question half-right. He is the son of David. But if He is only the son of David, what does that say about His divine nature? The son of David alone has a human nature. So there’s the half-right portion of their answer. Jesus certainly has a human nature. But what about His divine nature? Jesus gives glimpses of His divinity in the signs and wonders He performs. He is able to examine the hearts of those whom He comes into contact. So how do you handle Psalm 110:1, the verse Jesus quotes to the Pharisees, if you don’t believe Jesus is both God’s Son and David’s son?

That’s the question I ask every Jehovah’s Witness I meet. They have to deny our Lord’s divine nature to be consistent with their teaching. They fall into the ancient heresy of saying that the Uncreated cannot become the Created. God is not able to become man. So they punt the question and say that Jesus is the archangel Michael before His conception and after His crucifixion.

How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”? If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son? If you miss the correct answer to this question, then you destroy the Christian faith. The Pharisees answer the question with silence. They don’t, or won’t, answer the question. In fact, from that day no one dared to ask Him any more questions. It is better for the Pharisees to remain silent rather than incriminate themselves and confess the Truth. Confessing the Truth means to put an end to their institutional lie.

Hear, O Pharisees. Hear, O sinner. He is your praise. He is your God, who has done for you these great and terrifying things that your eyes have seen. Return to the Lord your God. Return to Him and believe that He is both David’s son and David’s Lord. Believe that Jesus Christ is true man, born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried for you. He is a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. He weeps. He hungers. He thirsts.

Believe also that Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity. He redeems you from the fiery pit of hell with His blood as the all-sufficient price of your salvation. His righteousness covers you through water and the Word in your baptism. He rises from the dead, lives, and reigns for all eternity for you. No man is able to make the payment for sin that Jesus makes on your behalf. No man rises from the dead triumphant over death, sin, and the devil except the God-man Jesus Christ. No mortal man sets His enemies, your enemies, under His feet, under your feet, as a footstool.

Jesus Christ does this for you. He is both David’s son and David’s Lord. He alone is able to love as the Father expects you to love. Jesus applies His love for God and for neighbor to you in His vicarious satisfaction for sin. His Holy Spirit connects you to the gifts of forgiveness and life that deliver the benefits of Christ’s satisfaction for your sin, especially the Lord’s Supper, where His Body and Blood is for you under bread and wine.

The result of answering both questions is clear. In Jesus Christ, you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Gustaf Wingren on Missionary Kerygma

It may, of course, be said that the New Testament as a whole is missionary writing, just as the Church is missionary. But in that case the liking for mechanical distinctions must give way, and the Christian life, both in its beginnings and its continuation, must be seen as life from the Word, as a continual returning to the one Gospel, to the Word about Christ. It is false intellectualism to separate those who belong to the Church from the missionary kerygma. That is considered possible only because of the idea in the background that once anyone has heard the Gospel he ought to go on gradually to something else. In fact the message of Christ’s death and resurrection has as its most prominent objective that we who hear it should die and rise again and, since our own will refuses to submit itself to this living process, the word about Christ is always new, unexpected and fresh even to the day of our death. To apply the one kerygma to all the situations of life, to “instruct” so that it conquers, overturns and builds up, certainly demands new formulae. There are marked differences even within the New Testament; the one kerygma is still there, however, in the midst of the differences, yes, even because of them. It is of the utmost importance that the New Testament’s unity does not consist in expressions that are repeated in unchanging words in book after book. The living breath of the kerygma is change. The moment that change departs, the deep unity of the message will have gone.

The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church, page 18

Gustaf Wingren

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Trinity 17 (A Cwirlian Cornucopia of Gospel Goodness) – Luke 14:1-11

Read by my elders in my absence.

A Sabbath dinner with Jesus in the house of a Pharisee. You know this is going to be good. This is a teachable moment that is ripe with possibilities. The Pharisees are watching Jesus carefully. They are waiting for Him to make a slip so they can pin a charge on Him.

The man with dropsy is just the sort of person you want dropping in on your nice little dinner party with Jesus. You’re just getting started with the appetizers and drinks and in walks this man and stands in front of Jesus.

“Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” Jesus poses the Law question to the experts – the synagogue lawyers and the Pharisees. They took pride in this sort of thing. Codifying the law. Making it doable. 613 dos and don’ts. Thirty-two kinds of work you could not do on the Sabbath. Was this one of them? What about healing? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?

Was it work or wasn’t it? Well, it depends who did it, I suppose. If you do it, then it’s work. If God does it, then it isn’t work. But if God does it through you, well, not so sure about that. Best not say anything at all. That would be safest. “They remained silent.” Silence didn’t help the man. The Law can never heal.

What about a son or an ox who has fallen into a well? Wouldn’t you get him out? Would you even have to ask whether it is lawful to do this on a Sabbath? Would you wait until the next day just to keep the law? Of course not! “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” So what do you do? The Sabbath law says “no work”. The man is there to be healed. Ignore him and you break the fifth commandment. Heal him, and you break the third. You’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

That’s how the Law works. It won’t guide you as much as paint you into a corner where no matter what you do, you’ll walk on wet paint. It’s the same way with the man in the ditch who fell among thieves and the Samaritan who came to be neighbor to him. Only someone who is free from the Law is free to do goodness and mercy for the neighbor with no legal strings attached. And when you are free from the Law, you no longer have to ask the question “Is it lawful?” Rather the question will be, “Is it merciful, loving, good, gracious?”

Jesus is utterly free. He is the Lord of the Sabbath and the Lord of creation. He brings healing not the way the healers do, but as the Source of all healing. What He did for this man with dropsy He wants to do for all by His dying and rising. He bears our infirmities, our sicknesses, all the ways that Sin has ravaged our lives. He became our Sin. Our sickness too. “By His wounds we are healed.”

Jesus heals the man and sends him on his way. The lawyers and Pharisees have nothing to say about it. It makes no sense to them. How can this “Sabbath breaker” do the works of God? How can someone who seems to run roughshod over all the religious rules have the power of God to heal at the same time? The Law can’t bring healing. You don’t heal people by giving them commandments. In fact, to the legalist, the man who was sick probably did something to deserve being sick. That’s how it works with the Law. You get precisely what you deserve.

Let’s admit it, we think the same way, though we may not say it out loud. Our religious old Adam believes that you get what you deserve, even when it comes to illness. You must have done something wrong. You violated one of the commandments of health, dieting, and exercise. And even more, our religious old Adam believes that God only works through good people, the obedient ones, the commandment keepers. So we hold pastors and church leaders to standards we ourselves aren’t willing to keep, which serves two purposes. First, it allows us to knock them down whenever we perceive a weakness or failing on their part. Second, it lets us off the hook, because “hey, I’m not holy enough to do that job.” A win/win situation for the old Adam. He can judge others and justify himself at the same time.

Jesus has this dinner party wrapped around His little finger. All eyes and ears are on Him. A perfect time to tell a parable. “When you go to a wedding feast, don’t take the honored seats next to the bride and groom but sit with the losers in the back. That way you won’t be embarrassed when someone higher than you bumps you from your seat and you’ll be honored when the host says, “Friend, come up here.”

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

This is less about where to sit at a wedding than it is about how the marriage supper of the Lamb in His kingdom works. The Law is not there to exalt you. Try to use the Law of God to exalt yourself and admire how spiritual, religious, and wonderful you are, and you’re going to be humbled. Boast in your goodness, and the Law will put you in your place. Justify yourself with all the good you’ve done, and the Law will reveal you for the sinner that you are. There is always someone better than you. But be humbled by the Law, take your place among sinners as the chief of sinners, and you will be exalted by the Bridegroom Himself as He says to you, “Friend, come up to a higher place.”

That’s essentially what happens here every Sunday. We enter the doors in the back of the church as poor, miserable sinners confessing that we sin in thought, word, and deed, that we are by nature sinful and unclean. And Christ forgives us and says to us, “Friend, come up to a higher place. There is a place reserved for you at my table.” The kingdom of God is precisely opposite those fancy restaurants where celebrities and the rich get the preferred seats and don’t even need a reservation while the losers have to wait their turn if they get in at all. The last are first, the first are last. Sinners are justified. Sinners are welcome to the Lord’s table. If you’re not a sinner, you have no need for the Supper, no need for the Word of Christ, no need for Jesus. You can make it on your own.

A baptized believer is precisely sinful and righteous at the same time. He is a sinner covered with a righteousness that does not belong to him. He is Christ wearing an Adam suit, or as Luther put it “simultaneously sinful and righteous.” Who leaves the temple justified, according to Jesus? The proud religious Pharisee who boasts in his commandment keeping and compares himself to others? Or the humbled tax collector who is too ashamed even to lift his eyes to heaven and can only pray, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” According to Jesus that man, the tax collector, went home justified. Unless you take your place alongside the chief of sinners, you cannot be saved. Christ came to save sinners. Christ died for sinners. Christ justifies sinners. Christ forgives, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. And if you’re not one of them, you don’t need Jesus. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Saint Paul said: “Christ died for sinners of whom I am chief.” Jesus humbled Himself and became obedient to the Law even to death. Jesus was exalted, raised to the right hand of the Father to save you. His humbling and His glory are yours. To be humbled by the Law is to be crucified with Christ, to be set at the lowest seat in the depths of death and grave. It is to die. And that’s all the Law of God can do. It can’t make you a better person. It can’t make you righteous before God. It can’t heal you. It can’t give you any special place or privileged position in the kingdom. It can only drive you to the lowest place, that is, to your death.

And from there, and only from there, you hear the voice of Jesus your Savior say to you, “Friend, come up to a better place. Come sit at my table at a feast which has no end.”