Monthly Archives: October 2016

Reformation Day – Romans 3:19-31

The center point of the Christian faith is the answer to this question: “How am I good enough for God?” Put another way, “How can I stand before God in life and death, in time and eternity?” The opposite question that concerns most people, including Christians, is “How do I get through life and make the most out of it, especially among family and friends?” Often we mix both questions together and let the second question answer the first question. It sounds like this: “I am good enough for God when I am kind to everyone, always do the right thing, and am financially secure.”

Holy Scripture has another answer to that question that doesn’t involve being kind, doing the right thing, and financial security. You stand before God justified, declared not guilty of sin, by God’s grace alone, for Christ’s sake, through faith. This one sentence summarizes the Law, the prophets, and the New Testament.

You might know that statement because you’ve heard it countless times. You might even understand it. But do you live it? Does the confidence that sentence gives comfort your soul? You must admit that self-justification still echoes in your conscience. You still think that you have to do something on your own to appease an angry God. That is why you hear, week after week, that Jesus has done everything and you have done nothing for your eternal welfare. That is the message of the Reformation. You are justified before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith.

Saint Paul says in Romans chapter three that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All means you. All means every Jew and Gentile, regardless of whether or not they believe it. You think you don’t sin by deed, but your heart is full of grumbling about your neighbor’s sins. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is still weak, frustrating every good intention and harboring many evil fruits.

You can’t get around the fact that the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law. There is nothing you can do, think, or say that will change God’s mind about how you stand before God. There is no gift you can bring to Him that will make His countenance change. Jesus Christ has already done it on your behalf. Your merit does nothing. Your works do nothing. Jesus’ merit, Jesus saving work, does everything for you.

Grace is often misunderstood by Christians. Grace is not something God gives you so you can do a better job obeying the Ten Commandments. Grace is when a king gives life to a murderer who is condemned to death. Grace is when God, the heavenly King, forgives all guilt and opens Paradise instead of hell to a transgressor who has defied Him all his life, trampled down His Word, and has done only evil to his neighbor and yet comes to the knowledge of his sacrilege in the last hour. If you aren’t pardoned like a criminal, like a poor offender, you will certainly not be justified and saved.

You are justified by grace – for Christ’s sake. Saint Paul says you are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. You know God is just. Often you might think God is just in that He chastises wrongdoers. He tells the Israelites, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy. Yet God is just in that He chastises His only-begotten Son on your behalf. God acts in His creation, in the fullness of time, to spare His people from everlasting death.

All of Christ’s life, suffering, and dying was a reflection and image of divine holiness. The Law is fulfilled by Him, just as God wills it. God’s righteousness threatens to punish us for our sin. Instead of punishing us, God punishes His sinless Son, the scapegoat, the sacrificial Lamb. All the horrors, tortures, and torments of this world and the next have joined together on Jesus. The Lord has cast all our sins on Him. This is why Jesus cries out on the cross, it is finished. The chastising righteousness of God is thus satisfied in Jesus.

God has, according to His grace, put forward Christ and His blood, as our text says, to a mercy seat. The mercy seat in the Old Testament temple covered the Ark of the Covenant, covered the tables of the Law that were kept in the ark, covered all sins and transgressions of Israel, in which the Law recalled, before God’s eyes. The mercy seat with the blood of reconciliation, which was sprinkled every year by the high priest, stood in the middle between sinful Israel, who were guilty of the Law, and the holy God, Who sat enthroned on the cherubim.

But all this was prophecy that is fulfilled by Christ. Christ is the true mercy seat. Christ and the precious blood of reconciliation that is shed on the cross stands in the midst of sinners on earth and the holy, righteous God. God regards us through Christ. Now He no longer regards us our own way, our sins, our shame and nakedness, but regards us in Christ’s blood and righteousness. We are now before God’s eyes so pure, beautiful, and innocent, as if we would be Christ. The grace of God has a firm, secure foundation: the blood and merit of the Son of God. We can build and trust on it in life and death.

We are justified by God’s grace, for Christ’s sake – through faith. Saint Paul says the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, both Jew and Gentile. St. Paul shows in Romans chapter four that even Abraham and David in this way have become righteous and saved before God. The entire New Testament witnesses the righteousness of Christ, the grace of God in Christ. Christ says: This is righteousness, that I go to the Father. Through His going to the Father, through His death, through His blood He has obtained and acquired for sinners true, divine righteousness.

The redemption that happened through Christ Jesus is not simply told or described in the Word of God. Through the Word, through the Gospel, the righteousness that avails before God is also presented to you. In the Gospel, God has presented Christ to sinners as the mercy seat. As often as the Gospel is preached to you, God is present and offers you all grace without distinction, Christ is present and offers you all righteousness without distinction. In the Word, in the Gospel, everything that you need is resolved: grace, righteousness, life, salvation. Every sinner can at any time extract these treasures from the Bible, from preaching.

True faith is hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ and believing that you are pure and free from all sin, guilt, and iniquity through Christ, your Redeemer. You have a gracious God through Christ. When you cling to those words, you have what they say. You have eternal life. You have sonship with God. True faith takes God’s gift and grace, and thanks and prays that gratitude in all sorts of good works. But faith itself and every good thing that comes from faith is a work of the grace of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit.

This is the message you hear every week from this pulpit. It’s a message that is not merely for Reformation Day, for Easter, for Good Friday, or for Christmas. It’s the message that permeates everything a Christian believes: I am saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. Believe it, and as sure as God’s Word is true, you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

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St. James of Jerusalem – James 1:1-12

Lutherans tend to get allergic to hearing preaching, let alone reading, from the epistle of James. After all, James does say in chapter two of his epistle, But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. That ought to be enough to make us nod our heads in approval with Martin Luther calling James an “epistle of straw” and “a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.”

There is always two sides to every story. James might be an “epistle of straw”, but it is also an “epistle of faith”. A key to understanding what James writes in his epistle is to understand that James is writing to an audience who already believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. He calls them the twelve tribes in the Dispersion, echoing Old Testament language of the twelve tribes of Israel who have been scattered abroad.

A clue to why his audience has been scattered abroad comes early in today’s epistle: Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. Some scholars place the date of this epistle not long after the stoning of Saint Stephen in Acts chapter seven. Stephen’s stoning began a period of severe persecution for followers of The Way, as the Christian faith was called in those early years after Pentecost. Reading James while understanding the context under which he wrote his epistle brings us a lot of comfort as we listen to his words to those who are ready to suffer, even to death, for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds. That’s the last thing any of us want to do. Those of us who are Cubs fans may have found a couple of games this week to be more than we could handle. Perhaps you have already signed off on the Bears season because you can’t stomach seeing them play poor football. Comparing sports to the Christian faith is foolishness, but you see the point. When persecution comes upon a Christian, the last thing you want to do is consider it a joy to suffer for Christ’s sake.

The apostles counted it joy to suffer for Christ’s sake. Every opportunity they took to preach the Gospel was all joy. They were allowed to speak Christ’s saving death and resurrection to someone. The Jewish authorities tried to silence their witness. Some Roman authorities listened, but never really believed what they said. Others were ready to do whatever it took to silence their preaching, even if it meant killing the messengers.

The model witness, or martyr, in the New Testament who counted it all joy to suffer was Saint Stephen himself. Perhaps that’s why James writes what he does to open his epistle. Saint Luke records his death in Acts chapter seven: And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. Stephen doesn’t yell at them to stop. What is more, he doesn’t hold their sin against them. He is ready to die. He is ready to forgive. Stephen stands firm to the end and receives a martyr’s crown.

Those who suffer for the sake of Jesus count it all joy to meet trials of various kinds. Perhaps it is not persecution that should concern us. All of us bear various crosses. For some it is unrighteous anger. For others it is shame and guilt over an abortion, or perhaps a divorce. These are not unpardonable sins. They are covered under Christ’s blood; paid in full. Yet the pain remains, often for the rest of one’s life.

Jesus Christ counted it all joy to suffer and die for your sin. He met a trial no one should ever go through. He was the scapegoat for the sins of every human being who ever lived, currently lives, or will live. Never once did He waver. Never once did He think it a fool’s errand to die an innocent death for the sake of guilty people. Jesus did His Father’s will all the way to Calvary, through the tomb, and to His Father’s side. All this He did for your sake.

The privilege is yours to meet various trials, especially trials that come for the sake of clinging to Christ for your salvation. In those trials you have the opportunity to speak the hope that is in you for eternal life. Your hope, your joy, is Jesus Christ. He has made it possible for you to die a Christian death. A Christian death means to fall asleep in Jesus’ wounds with the confidence that when you again open your eyes, you shall see your Savior face-to-face. James says so in the last verse of today’s epistle: Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

You may not have a death like Stephen, all of the apostles save John, or any other martyr. You will, however, have your trials. In the midst of those trials, you cling to Jesus to see you through it all. When you cling to Jesus in every trial, your steadfastness has what James calls its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James’ words to you today are not words of straw. They are words of faith, a faith that is founded on the Chief of the Corner: Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Faith for Saint James, and for you, does not merely know Jesus like someone would know answers to trivia. Faith is a lively trust in the God who has made forgiveness a reality for that faith. The ancient Christians believed that reality in the preaching they heard. You today also believe that reality, for you have seen in various trials how the Lord God has brought you through them. Count it all joy, beloved, to suffer everything for the sake of Jesus Christ, even when your faith in Him is a tiny spark. That tiny spark is perfect and complete, lacking in nothing, for it holds fast to Jesus Christ, your Crown of Life.

Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity – John 4:46-54

Jesus chastises unbelief and praises faith. When His disciples woke Him from sleep as a storm raged against their ship, Jesus says, Why are you afraid, O you of little faith? When the nobleman came to Jesus with a weak and imperfect faith, Jesus says, Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe. On the other hand, when the centurion asks Jesus to heal His servant and our Lord is ready to go with him but the centurion won’t let Him, Jesus says, Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.

While chastising the nobleman, our Lord still heals his son by saying Go; your son will live. The nobleman goes home with five words in his pocket that do what they say. The nobleman is an educational and edifying image of faith. Sadly, we might consider asking Christ’s help in difficult situations only when He is our last resort. We live in great carnal security, thinking everything will go our way in time. We pay no attention to God’s Word about calling on Him in the day of trouble. Only temptation teaches us to remember what God’s Word has to say about believing He will provide help when and where He wills.

Such is the case with the nobleman. He is a member of the court of King Herod Antipas, the adulterer who beheaded John the Baptist. Only when the nobleman’s son falls sick unto death does he recall God’s Word of promise that was implanted in his heart. That Word causes him to seek out Jesus. Although a tiny spark, as it were, faith in Christ proves true no matter its size. Jesus may have been the last resort for the nobleman, but at least he went to Jesus and asked Him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death.

The nobleman’s faith is shown to be weak because he had to have Jesus go with him to heal His son. As we heard with the centurion, the word spoken from a distance is able to heal. The centurion said that he was not worthy that Jesus enter his house. All that was needed was a word from Jesus and his son would be healed. No wonder our Lord says truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. Jesus can’t say the same about the nobleman.

The same also could not be said about you much of the time. You cry out to the Lord in distress and faith is there. Yet often it is a small spark, just like the nobleman. It is like a small, weak hand that can’t grasp the word of promise. All sorts of temptations come flowing at you. God isn’t listening. God is a liar. Jesus only listens to prayers of the most ardent Christians. He hasn’t any time for your babblings. Jesus isn’t here like He was then. He can’t come to your house or even speak a word from across the planet. There are other options to try before you ask the Great Physician of body and soul.

What matters here, as it does for the nobleman, is that Jesus doesn’t turn His back on the nobleman’s request. Little faith is still faith, a faith that receives everything it needs provided you only know, desire, and seek no other help than from Jesus, the Almighty Son of God. It would have been easy for our Lord to brush aside the nobleman and ask him to come back when his faith was stronger. Instead, Jesus does what the nobleman requests in spite of him asking twice for Jesus to come with him. The nobleman goes home with those words in his pocket; words that never fail to accomplish what they mean. In this case, Jesus says, Go, your son will live. Sure enough, the boy lives.

Little, weak faith often attracts strength quickly and suddenly by God’s grace. It’s like Captain Marvel in comic books. A young boy, Billy Batson, says one word, “SHAZAM!” and becomes Captain Marvel, an adult hero. A childlike faith in Jesus makes someone a hero. You open your mouth and ask for help. The Lord will come to help the weakness of the nobleman. Yes, Jesus tells him, unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe. Don’t take these words as chastisement to wrath and righteous anger. These are words of love and grace aimed at strengthening dim-witted courage.

Jesus here is redirecting the nobleman to trust not in what he sees, but what he hears. Jesus needs not be present for you to win. You, like the nobleman, should only confidently believe Jesus will help, even when all signs point to the contrary. Believe Jesus without previous signs and wonders. Believe Jesus in spite of what you see, feel, or think. Believe Jesus without seeing. That’s what Jesus tries to root out of the nobleman by saying unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe. That’s all it took for the nobleman. Even though he begs Jesus to come, Jesus heals with five words. The nobleman goes home thinking Jesus might still need to make an emergency trip to his house. Yet when he returns home, his son was healed at the precise moment Jesus said his son will live.

It’s tempting to think Jesus needs to be there to help. Yet His Word does what it says even without Him standing next to you. That’s what the nobleman learned. That’s what is renewed in you today. Faith in Jesus clings to the naked and pure Word. Consider how the naked and pure Word works in the Church. Your baptism is Christ’s working on you to bring you into His kingdom. Jesus personally didn’t baptize you. The Word with the water and with Christ’s mandate did what it does. You’ll eat and drink the Lord’s Supper today. Jesus isn’t here to put His forgiveness directly in your mouth. He puts His Word under bread and wine. The Holy Spirit, working in that Word, shows you that bread and wine, Body and Blood, are here together to forgive your sins.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee, as the hymn says, there stands the Savior’s Word of promise for you. His Word is more than Go, your son will live. His Word is all over Sacred Scripture. He makes countless promises for you. He keeps every one of them. The greatest promise He makes is the promise that you will live with Him for all eternity because of His shedding blood on your behalf. His perfect righteousness and holiness now covers you. You are not guilty of sin. You will go to your home in the New Creation after Judgment Day a perfect being for whom Christ died and rose from the dead. Though ever a child of God, trusting in His promises you are a strong hero of faith, even when that trust in God is a small as a spark.

Twentieth Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 22:1-14

No one looks bummed out at a wedding reception. Even the father of the bride, who gets to pay for most of the feast, is happy about his daughter’s wedding day. You get to dress up, even in this age of dressing down. You might get a meal. You will get your share of beverages. There are customs and traditions that bring smiles.

Even Holy Scripture speaks of spiritual goodness in the way of a lavish meal. Consider Psalm 23: You prepare a table for me before my enemies. Mary the mother of God says in the Magnificat: He has filled the hungry with good things. The Divine Service of Word and Sacrament is a foretaste of the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb. Yet we sometimes treat our time together around the altar and pulpit as if we are going to our own execution.

We gripe about the draggy hymns. We gripe about singing and speaking the same thing every week. The noise of children, the notion of seeing someone we might not like, and hearing yet another sermon about Jesus, forgiveness, mercy, grace, blah, blah, blah. What we forget is that this service is full of joy. Jesus sends a human being into your midst to deliver His gifts of forgiveness and life in an up close and personal way. You don’t have the potential for forgiveness of sins; you actually have forgiveness put in you. Why are we that way? Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast of our heavenly King refreshes our joy in being someone for whom Christ died.

Jesus tells about a wedding feast. In Biblical times, according to custom, a wedding feast could last for days. You laid aside all worries and concerns for a while and celebrated what God had joined together in Holy Matrimony. Jesus took care of a great concern for a wedding feast in Cana by changing water into wine. Joy was restored to the wedding guests in a miraculous way.

The wedding feast in our Lord’s parable also is a royal wedding feast. That’s what makes this particular feast a double honor. You get to celebrate in the presence of the King. You know the food, drink, and festive atmosphere will be something special. Consider how many people follow royal weddings in the United Kingdom. The wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge several years ago captured much attention in our country, not to mention Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana years before.

The cry goes out from the servants of the master: See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast. Everyone is invited. No one is refused. Many refused that call. Their place is taken by all whom are found, both bad and good. Imagine a royal wedding banquet with multitudes of homeless people and criminals in attendance, not to mention “normal” people like you and me, with few, if any, of the social elite present. That’s the banquet Jesus is talking about today.

God prepares this banquet for you. You have no say as to what is served, where you sit, how you are served, and especially what you wear. God did not prepare this banquet with regard to whether guests would want to come or would be opposed to coming. The call keeps going out again and again: Come to the feast!

What is more, God doesn’t care whether or not you are worthy of attending His banquet. Think of it! How many times have you thought you were not worthy of coming to church because of your messy life. You stay home a few weekends because, well, church is only for those who have their act together. I don’t have my act together. My life is chaos. My temper is rotten. I don’t have any money for the offering. Somebody might shoot me a look because of what I wear. I’m not that good of a singer. I haven’t read the Bible in years.

God has heard all those excuses and more. He doesn’t care whether or not you are worthy of attending His banquet. The call keeps going out: Come to the feast! There’s a modern hymn that didn’t make the cut for Lutheran Service Book called “O Kingly Love, That Faithfully”. See yourself in these words.

O kingly Love, that faithfully

Didst keep Thine ancient promises,

Didst bid the bidden come to Thee,

The people Thou didst choose to bless,

O lavish Love, that didst prepare

A table bounteous as Thy heart,

That men might leave their puny care

And taste and see how good Thou art,

O seeking Love, Thy hurrying feet

Go searching still to urge and call

The bad and good on every street

To fill Thy boundless banquet hall.

 

You’re there. You’re in the picture. You are one whom God chooses to bless. There’s a spot at the table for you. There’s a wedding garment, dripping in baptismal water and Christ’s saving blood, waiting for you in the vestibule. That garment has your name written on it. Only you are able to wear it. That garment covers your corruption and makes you worthy of that spot in the banquet hall.

You get to leave your puny care to partake of the feast of victory of our God. The prophet Isaiah pictures this feast taking place on a mountain top. On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Welcome to the mountain top at the corner of Second and Pine. Cast aside all cares, for the Lord Christ cares for you. You are forgiven. You are loved. You are washed. You wear the wedding garment. Taste and see that the Lord is good. He lays before you His forgiveness in His Word read and proclaimed. He puts His true Body and true Blood in your mouth for the forgiveness of sins. He blesses you and sends you on your way rejoicing in His bountiful mercy. He does all this for you at no charge. Blessed are those who do not reject their wedding garment and reside in outer darkness, for they are outside of God’s curse and reckoned worthy in Christ for His everlasting royal wedding feast!

The feast is ready.

Come to the feast,

The good and the bad.

Come and be glad!

Greatest and least,

Come to the feast!

Earth’s Happiest Occasion

[Jesus] portrays His Gospel [in Matthew chapter 22] in beautiful, lovely tones, comparing it to a wedding, not a time for work or sadness, but a time for festivity and joy, when people dress themselves specially, sing, play, strike up the music, dance, feast, drink, and are happy all around and in good spirits. It would be no wedding, certainly, just to work, be sad, or mourn. Christ, accordingly, describes His Christendom and the Gospel in terms of earth’s happiest occasion, namely, a wedding. And by this He teaches us that His Gospel is a proclamation of love and joy, a truly joyous wedding celebration where Christ is the bridegroom and the Christian church, the bride, and our mother. Beautifully, magnificently the Lord portrays the kingdom of heaven, that is, His kingdom on earth, or the Gospel, as a wedding, in order winsomely to urge and coax us to come to Him in His kingdom, to accept His Gospel. We are to bear in mind, that it is to the wedding we want to go; it will be beautiful and delightful; we will be truly happy, our hearts and spirits lifted up in song. In this way our Lord seeks to urge us to regard the Holy Gospel as the choicest of treasures and greatest joy on earth.

Martin Luther, Third House Postil for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 22:1-14)