Author Archives: pastorjuhl

Second Sunday in Lent – Matthew 15:21-28

When you watch Jesus shun a Canaanite woman, you must see what He does within the context of Matthew chapter 15. The twenty verses prior to where today’s Gospel reading begins have Jesus tangling with the Pharisees and scribes. They want to know why Jesus’ disciples break the tradition of the elders. For they do not wash their hands when they eat. Christ’s response is brisk. And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? The Pharisees and scribes put tradition ahead of the Scriptures.

Jesus continues to poke them by saying it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person…. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone. Again, the Pharisees and scribes put tradition and customs not found in Scripture ahead of what the Scriptures say.

So we come to the Canaanite woman. Knowing what we know about Jesus’ remarks to the scribes, Pharisees, and those who heard Him speak, especially His own disciples, we expect to see a kind and gentle Savior heal the woman’s demon oppressed daughter. But he did not answer her a word. The disciples fall in line with their Master, begging Him to send her away, for she is crying out after us. Jesus responds I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Wait a moment. What’s wrong with this picture? The same Jesus Who tangles with the religious authorities about customs and traditions, letting them have it by quoting the Scriptures, now acts like one of them by refusing to have anything to do with a Canaanite woman and her request. Why the turn? Why are the disciples not reminding Jesus about what He said earlier about customs and traditions? It seems that theory and practice are out of whack. Everything is as it seems, at least for Jesus. The disciples are about to learn a valuable lesson from a Canaanite woman. She will show them what comes out of her mouth isn’t always what one expects to come out of a Canaanite’s mouth.

A Jew should never have to respond to anything a Canaanite says. A Jew looks at a Canaanite and sees, well, nothing, really. They are not on the radar screen. They are outside of the kingdom of heaven. They are not God’s chosen people. They are mutts, no longer pure-bred children of the Promise as they were before the Assyrians conquered them in 722 B.C. The Assyrians began to enter into mixed marriages with the Northern Tribes of Israel. The blood line, as God saw it, became polluted. Messiah would not come from them. His children redeemed from Pharaoh’s yoke and brought into the Promised Land gave up what was theirs. Now what is left is to be shunned as idolaters.

A Jew doesn’t eat with a Canaanite. A Jew never prays with them. A Jew doesn’t strike up a conversation with them. A Jew goes out of his or her way to ignore them. That is why Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman is appropriate. I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel…. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. The translation of “dogs” there is actually quite mild. The thrust of the word is actually could be translated as an epithet one might use to describe a female dog.

It’s easy to identify with Jesus and the disciples. The Good News is only for those who God intends the Good News. You have to be chosen, pure-bred, with no defilements inside or outside. There are customs and traditions to follow in order to maintain that sort of life. You get, as it were, braggin’ rights. Messiah is for us, not for you. As long as we stick to the rule of life, the code of ethics, we will remain in God’s good graces forever. We’ll wash our hands just so. We’ll eat only certain foods. We’ll pray a certain way. And we won’t let outsiders have anything to do with us unless they submit to our customs and traditions.

Do your customs and traditions also include not welcoming strangers and foreigners? Does it include coarse conversation against those outside what you believe? Does it include finger pointing and blaming everyone else but yourself when things don’t go your way? Remember what Jesus said earlier in chapter 15: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.

Jesus should be defiled. So should the disciples. Look at how they act. Yet Jesus has a reason for it. He answered the Canaanite woman: It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table. This conversation hinges on one little word: Yes. Everything Jesus said about her is true. Now let’s see the account in its true light. You are the Canaanite woman instead of one of the disciples. In fact, the disciples are one with the Canaanite woman. A Jew and a Canaanite both have something in common: sin. Both are outside the kingdom of heaven because both are sinners.

But I hold to the customs and traditions of…no, you don’t. If you did, you wouldn’t be a sinner. But I am…no, you aren’t. If you were, you wouldn’t think, speak, or act that way toward a fellow sinner. When Jesus says all these things against the Canaanite woman, He says them to you. He says them to His disciples. He says them to His own people. Customs, traditions, blood lines, and nationalities mean nothing in God’s eyes. He sees them as His fallen creation in need of redemption. He sees you in need of redemption.

Hey, watch this! O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire. The woman’s daughter is no longer demon possessed. The Canaanite woman receives what she desires: Jesus and everything He provides. Jesus Christ does not limit what He does to one particular people. He is the Savior of both Jew and Gentile, even this Canaanite woman who heard and believed that Jesus is her Savior, too.

The disciples have a front row seat for it because they will soon go to all nations to proclaim what they see and hear. They see and hear Jesus suffer and die for sins. They see Jesus resurrected to seal His victory over death and Satan. This victory is for all who hear and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The desire of the nations is redemption. Only Jesus is the Redeemer. Only Jesus brings light in the midst of darkness. Only Jesus speaks the Word that scatters Satan. Only Jesus is the first-born from the dead. Jesus remembers you when He comes into His kingdom. Our Father in heaven, when His Son remembers you in His death, remembers your sin no more. He doesn’t see Canaanite, American, Jew, or Greek. He sees forgiven sinners waiting for His Son’s return.

Hey, watch this! Jesus is trapped by a Canaanite woman, and in His being trapped sets her daughter free from demons. In His being trapped by His own people He sets them free and you as well.

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First Sunday in Lent – Matthew 4:1-11

HEY, WATCH THIS! That phrase is usually spoken by someone who is about to show off. What usually follows after also saying, “Hold my beverage” is an antic that might end up being something totally cool. Or it might end up putting that person in the hospital. Over the next few weeks, the former option is the correct option. Jesus will be doing some totally cool things. The ultimate result is the coolest thing of all. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, will rise from the dead, trampling down death and Satan in His wake. He forgives your sins in His all-availing sacrifice upon the cross, and then He secures a place for you with Him in the heavenly mansions for eternity. HEY, WATCH THIS!

          Today we watch Jesus shut down the accuser, Satan, who tempts Jesus to disbelieve, to become arrogant, and to love the world instead of His Father in heaven. Jesus shuts down Satan by resisting temptation as He quotes the Scriptures in His resistance. Jesus resists temptation for us, knowing that the first Adam did not resist temptation.

The devil thinks his time has come. Jesus has gone without food or drink for forty days. Jesus is then led into the wilderness to do battle with the devil. Christ has the power to turn stones into bread. If Jesus does so, He falls prey to sin. He transgresses the divine will. There is no need to sin here. Jesus stands firm with the Word. Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.

If Jesus changes stones to bread, He denies what is written. The Scriptures cannot deny themselves. The Living Word then would trump what is written and make the Scriptures a lie. Then Jesus Himself becomes a deceiver, falling into disbelief.

The hour of the tempter comes to us when we are in need. We know what it means to lack what is necessary. We know what it is to have unfulfilled wishes and hopes. We’ve been sick. This is Satan’s moment to strike. It’s time to help yourself for once he says. It’s time not to be honest. It’s time to find another cure. It’s time to make your dreams come true, even if you hurt or harm someone else in the process. So we step on the backs of others to make sure we get what we want. We change stones into bread.

All the more then for Christ to stand firm. Watch Him deny the tempter with the spoken Word. As He overcomes disbelief, so He gives us the remedy to overcome disbelief this side of Paradise. Our heavenly Father will provide what we need when we lack. We may not receive everything we want, but we do receive what we need at the right time. As the Psalmist says: Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. Trust yourself and you will fall. Trust the Lord, trust His providential care, and you stand.

If Jesus jumps off the pinnacle of the temple, He enters into an unnecessary danger. He shows off for the sake of showing off. Jesus never performs a miracle in order to show off. Every miracle is performed to help someone in need. There’s no need to call out angels to catch Him. It is written: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.

Even today we are tempted to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, so to speak. We try to put ourselves ahead of everyone. We gossip against our neighbor. You know something they don’t know, and you can’t wait to tell everyone about it…except them, of course. We attend church only when there’s a personal goal that needs to be met. I really sinned big time this week. I guess I’ll go to church and get my forgiveness. Maybe next week I won’t need forgiveness once I clean up my act. It works the other way, too. I’m such a horrible person that God can’t possibly forgive me. Yes, He can, and He does.

As Jesus overcomes the temptation to arrogance, so He also shows us how to overcome spiritual arrogance. When you are tested, cling to God’s promises for you. He will show me the way to walk with Him. When I stumble off the way, He will provide a way back to the path. When I fall far off the path, there stands Christ ready to catch me, to forgive me, and bring me back to rejoice in His gifts in His house.

The accuser saves the greatest rudeness for last. He provokes Jesus through the glory of the world. Nothing belongs to him, yet he wants Jesus to believe everything belongs to him. All our Lord needs to do is fall down and worship him. Satan shouldn’t be that blunt, but he is. We undergo the same temptation, too. How many times have you looked for that get-rich-quick scheme that will finally give you financial security? How many times have you ditched reliable friends for new, well-connected friends who turn out to be people who use you and then kick you to the curb? Then there are the times when you want to cast aside what you believe about the Christian faith and no longer practice it. God is out of one more last chances. Or, worse yet, God stands in the way of family, friends, and every advantage necessary to have a good life.

Jesus has an answer for that temptation. You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. When Christ speaks, the evil enemy must give way. He has no response to it. He can no longer tempt our Lord. As Christ speaks the Truth, so He gives you the Truth in the Scriptures. There is no other God but the one Lord God revealed in Sacred Scripture. The devil is a liar. His accusations are a farce. He must flee the scene a defeated man when you strike back with the Truth.

The Truth is that the world, your flesh, and Satan make false promises. The Truth is that you will fall prey to Satan’s temptations. Because you believe the evil foe, you deserve eternal death. Jesus Christ, however, breaks and hinders the power of the devil, the world, and your flesh. He overcomes temptation not to bask in His own glory, but to give you the spoils of His triumph. His perfect righteousness, His perfect holiness, and His perfect victory over sin and death are yours in believing Christ alone overcomes the adversary. Jesus alone brings you again to paradise. Jesus alone declares you worthy of sonship with the Father. It is written: He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.

Hey, watch this! Jesus overcomes temptation for you. You, also, overcome temptation. He gives you the sword of the Spirit and the full armor of God against the foe’s cunning strikes. In Christ you have the victory, both here and in eternity.

Quinquagesima – Luke 18:31-43

The Resurrection of our Lord is the fulcrum, the center point, of the church year. Everything flows from it, and everything flows to it. It is the greatest mystery of godliness. Christmas time introduced us to this mystery as God is revealed in the flesh. Lententide, which begins Wednesday, covers this mystery in an even deeper and more incomprehensible way. The incarnate Son of God humbles Himself in the suffering of His crucifixion in order to earn salvation for lost sinners.

The next six weeks compels a lively and more faithful knowledge of the blessed mystery of our salvation in Christ. The healing of the blind man by Jesus on His way to Jerusalem is the ideal way to enter into Lent. We hear today that our salvation is only in the crucified and risen Son of God.

The first promise of a Savior is given to Adam and Eve. God willing we will hear the full context next weekend. For now we hear the promise itself. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. The last promise comes from the mouth of Malachi under the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. In between these two prophecies are many more assurances that Messiah is coming.

Messiah comes to suffer. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise. Jesus suffers in His soul. He suffers agony in Gethsemane. The wrath of His Father goes on Him. He suffers the torments of hell for our sake, even crying out My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? This terrible suffering pays for the guilt of sin. It is the atonement, the sin offering, for the punishment of our sin. Through it Jesus overcomes the devil, death, and hell. Divine righteousness is satisfied. Redemption is perfected, prepared for, and acquired for all sinners. Hence our Lord’s last words from the cross: It is finished.

Christ’s suffering and death is the penultimate note. His rising from the dead is the ultimate note, the confirmation of His work of atonement for our sake. Without the resurrection, everything that comes before it is in vain. In the resurrection we see the revelation of His glorious victory over all our enemies. We see the completion of His work of salvation sealed, for Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

It is one thing for our blessed Lord to acquire salvation. He also appropriates His salvation to us. We don’t often hear the word “appropriation” these days. We usually think of it in the context of our government. Congress sets aside public funds for a specific use. That’s federal appropriation. The Illinois General Assembly does the same thing on the state level. Another definition of “appropriation” is “to claim or use, especially as by an exclusive right.” That’s what Jesus does with His salvation for us. He uses it by an exclusive right to save us.

Our Savior could cling to His salvation on our behalf. He could dangle it as a carrot in front of us. He could demand that we clean up our act, get our spiritual room tidied in order to make way for His saving benefits. He does no such thing. His work of salvation is exclusively for sinners, not for those who used to be sinners. Yes, you are holy by virtue of believing that Jesus Christ shed blood for your sin and was raised from the dead for your sake. Yet while you remain in the flesh, you also remain a sinner. You need Jesus to appropriate what is His for you.

Consider the blind man in today’s Gospel. He believes Jesus is able to do something about his malady. We get a clue that the man believes Jesus is more than merely a man when he persistently cries out: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Note that he says this after the crowd tells him Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. What’s the difference between the two titles? One is Jesus’ earthly title. It’s like saying David from Du Quoin. Calling Jesus Son of David, however, is a Messianic title. The blind man knows more about the Lord than perhaps most of the crowd.

Hearing the blind man call Him Son of David, Jesus stops dead in His tracks. What do you want Me to do for you He asks? Lord, let me recover my sight. Jesus gives what the blind man desires. Immediately he recovered his sight and followed Him, glorifying God. Jesus appropriates sight to a blind man. He has the authority to do it.

You, like the blind man, outside of Christ, are spiritually blind. You can’t see your way to Paradise. Jesus, however, has the authority to give you sight. He appropriates vision. He creates trust that He is your Savior in hearing His Word, for faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.

Jesus appropriates salvation by the Holy Spirit when He shows from the Law the misery of sin. Once you hear your miserable state, He then proclaims an end to misery in Christ Jesus. He alone accomplishes redemption. He alone is able to give His redemption to you. When you receive it, when you believe it, you are born from above as God’s own child. You are washed in the waters of baptism. Your desire is to receive more of what the Lord has for you. Your desire is to live in peace with God and with your neighbor, putting your body to work to serve Him as you serve others.

Lent is the season when we consider the depths of our depravity because of sin. Lent is a special season where repentance is encouraged. Yet sin and repentance run through every season of the church year, as does the joy we have in Christ’s completed redemption and resurrection for us. It is, indeed, a happy Lent. Our joy is muted, but not fully silenced. We know what lies at the end of the forty days of Lent. When we get there, we will see what a wonderful Savior we have, Who is willing to trample down death and cover us with His blood that we might be His children.

Gospel and Scripture

“It is, I believe, the failure to grasp and face up to the confessional doctrine of Biblical authority which has given rise to much of the confusion in the Lutheran church today regarding the relation of the Gospel to Scripture, of the material principle, so-called, and the formal principle of theology. Scripture is the principium cognoscendi, the source of our knowledge of theology; the Gospel is the source of our faith itself. Scripture is the source of our doctrine (fides quae creditur), also the doctrine of the Gospel; the Gospel creates personal faith (fides qua creditur). Scripture is properly called the authority, norm, source, judge; the Gospel in Scripture, or wherever it obtains, is power, God’s own power unto salvation to all who believe. The unity of faith in the Gospel is the foundation of our fellowship in the church universal (AC VII); unity in the articles of faith drawn from the Scriptures is the foundation for external fellowship among particular churches and synods (FC SD, Rule and Norm, 1; SD, X, 16, 31). The sola gratia and sola fide of the Gospel are the source and means of my salvation; the sola scriptura is the source of my preaching and teaching. Recognition of the formal principle (sola Scriptura) and loyalty to it are the fruits of faith in the Gospel; faith in the Gospel is the result of a Word and preachment drawn from and normed by the Scriptures.”

Robert Preus, “Biblical Authority in the Lutheran Confessions” (1977)

Robert Preus

The Law Is Preached to the Christian Because The Christian Remains in the Flesh

Christians, however, also need the Law as a norm, i.e., as rule and guideline from which they learn how they should walk in a God-pleasing way. Certainly not, however, in so far as they are reborn or Christians. To this extent, they have the Law of God within themselves and need no external rule and guideline for their manner of life. In this place belongs the word: “The Law is not laid down for the just.”[1] But inasmuch as Christians still have the flesh in themselves, blindness and perversity prevails in them regarding the will of God. They want to do things that God does not require of them, and the things they should do they want to omit.

The history of the Church and of every Christian life provides enough examples. Just think of monasticism. Men came and come to the strange delusion of wishing to serve God by leaving their vocation and running to the cloister. Let us remember that in ourselves, i.e., in our flesh, we often have little desire for the works of our vocation, but we may be content with the things that are not commanded us.

Therefore, we cannot seriously stress enough that the Law must be incessantly taught in the Church as the norm of a God-pleasing life. To the same people to whom the apostle said: “Christ is the end of the law”[2] he holds up before them: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”[3] Further: Paul certainly gives Christians the testimony that they gladly give. He testifies to the Christian communities that they “gave according to their means and beyond their means, of their own accord”[4], and again: “I know your readiness”[5] — and yet the same apostle holds up before the same people as rule and norm: “God loves a cheerful giver”, and reminds them: “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”[6] From this we see that we merely follow the apostolic model when we hold up the Law to Christians as the norm that shows them what they are to do.

Let us see to it that in this point no antinomian practice creeps in among us. Someone might think that all external substance has no value before God. That is why I will continue with the preaching of the Gospel, but keep silent of the Law as the norm of the Christian way of life. I will wait for true works to come by themselves. That would make a false distinction between Law and Gospel. This would in practice neglect a part of the Word of God. It is true that a Christian, as a Christian, is not only willing to walk in God’s commandments, but as a Christian he also knows himself (namely because the Law is written in his heart according to the new man), what is the good will of God. But a Christian is a double person [German: Doppelmensch]. He still has the old man in himself who always indicates the wrong way regarding works. But because the old man does not live apart from the Christian or is removed from him, but dwells in the Christian, and forms a person with him, he thus continually obscures the right knowledge of what the will of God is to the Christian. For this reason, the Law of God must still be held up before Christians as the norm of a God-pleasing life.

Franz Pieper, “The Practical Importance of the Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel”

Note: Italicized print is Pieper’s emphasis. Bold print is my emphasis.

[1] 1 Timothy 1:9.
[2] Romans 10:4.
[3] Romans 13:13-14.
[4] 2 Corinthians 8:3.
[5] 2 Corinthians 9:2.
[6] 2 Corinthians 9:6-7.

Sexagesima – Luke 8:4-15

It’s fun to play “What if”. Now and then I pretend that our family lives in a four-bedroom condominium on the 88th floor of the John Hancock Building in Chicago. If you have trouble sleeping maybe you pretend that you’re someplace else doing something else. It’s nice to pretend and wonder what could be if circumstances are different.

There’s a danger to playing “What if”. The parable of the soil into which the seed falls shows the danger. “What if” sometimes leads to worry. We play the “What if” game all the time in a negative connotation. It’s always good to have a contingency plan should something unexpected occur. But “what if” you’re constantly worried about a contingency plan? “What if” that contingency plan fails? “What if” this or that happens? You can “what if” yourself until you’re crazy.

From our side of things, there’s a lot of “what ifs” to consider as the sower sows the seed. Take the seed that lands among thorns. The seed grows. Hearers receive the Word. They believe in God and are saved. Then thorns arise and take over. Worries creep into the heart. Worries about daily bread, reputation, and so forth, whether actual or perceived worries, are maintained and excused. Worries are seen as our contingency plan. You have to be prepared. You also can worry so much about what you have and don’t have that you fail to appreciate what is given you by the gracious, giving God.

The fruit of the Word implanted in the soil is suffocated by thorns that bore deeper into heart and mind. Before long you’re literally lying on a bed of thorns, walking on a bed of thorns, even sitting on chairs of thorns. What if everything goes bad? What if the Word doesn’t really take root in my life? What if the Word I’ve heard all my life is a sham? What if my congregation can’t survive? What if everything around me isn’t real?

If that isn’t enough, there are thorns of abundance. It’s not sinful to have many things. What is sinful is when abundance causes you to see things in a different way. Instead of putting abundance to work for furthering God’s kingdom, you see the abundance of what you have as a way to get ahead of everyone, including God. The seed of the Word of God is suffocated again. All that’s left is thorns that block Jesus giving you His gifts of forgiveness of sins. You’ll never find satisfaction in abundance that lies to you about having more abundance to better yourself. What if I don’t have more than my neighbor? What if I could show off all that I have to make others jealous of me?

But wait, there are more thorns. If earthly cares and deceitful abundance don’t get the job done, the pleasures of this life certainly can do you in. Satan is always looking for ways to get you to love everything and everyone except the Lord. Your own flesh seeks to find its own salvation in creature comforts. Even the world lies about your life never getting any better than it is right now. No wonder so many choose to live for today rather than live in the grace and joy of God bestowed on His beloved children in the all-availing shedding of blood by Jesus for the sin of the world.

Misplaced lusts for life are perhaps the most dangerous thorns of all. What if I love the image of a scantily-clad woman on my phone more than my wife? What if I spent more quality time with the guy down the street than with my husband? What if I dressed in such a way that makes others turn their head? What if I treated others as if they have to pay attention to me more than others?

It seems as if there is no hope for the seed that is choked by thorns. Maybe a shrug and an “amen” is appropriate here as we mourn what might have been. But “what if”? What if the good and wise Law of God has its way with the sinner’s heart, working contrition and repentance for trusting and loving everything except God? What if the Sower Himself, Jesus Christ, rips away the dying thorns killed by the preaching of the Law? What if the seed is watered with vivifying baptismal water? What if that seed is regularly nourished by hearing the Good News that Jesus Christ has destroyed death and paid for sin, bestowing His unblemished righteousness to the sinner? What if that seed is also nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ under bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith in Jesus? What if that seed doesn’t die, but instead lives? What if that seed bore abundant fruit?

With God all things are possible. After all, He is in the death and resurrection business…and business is always good. Sometimes that seed lands on good soil, ready to receive the seed and bear fruit a hundred fold. Yes, there are times the seed lands on bad soil. It’s as if Jesus knows it, laments it, yet rejoices in the seed that bears fruit. The implanted Word regularly nourished can’t help but bear fruit; the fruit of joy and pleasure of resting in the arms of a loving Savior. The “what if” of what seems impossible is certain in God’s only-begotten Son. You live. You bear fruit. You abide in the Vine of Righteousness growing from the Tree of Life.

Eleven Years in Momence

Eleven years ago tonight I first laid eyes on Momence, Illinois. I was a pastor downstate in Iuka, where I had spent over four and a half years serving God’s flock there. A call from Our Savior Lutheran Church in Momence had come my way. Becky, Cate (then not quite 2.5 years old) and I drove up from Iuka to look over the community and the church building.

I recall staying in Crete at my seminary classmate Larry Loree’s house. He served at the other end of the circuit in Steger at the time. I remember Reid, the chairman of the voters assembly inviting the three of us to eat with his wife and young son. His son kept bugging Dad for pizza. I told Reid, “Let the young man have his pizza!” So we ate up the street at Monical’s Pizza, now long gone.

I met some wonderful people for the first time that night. The congregation had gone through a rough patch. Families had left. Disagreements took place. Nevertheless, my predecessors had laid a good foundation in the preaching of the Gospel. I’ll never forget watching the LWML ladies walk up the front stairs after their meeting in what became our parsonage.

After another day checking out the area and a nice reception at Pr. Loree’s house among some of the circuit pastors, we drove home to Iuka with lots of thinking and praying to do. Ultimately I accepted the call and was installed here on March 25, 2007. The dear saints in Iuka, IL remain in my thoughts. They were my first charge out of seminary. Some have fallen asleep in Jesus since my departure. All of them, living and asleep, are loved and missed. I learned a lot there. It was a joy to serve them.

The Lord has seen fit to bless Becky and me with four more children since then. The parsonage here was turned back into a parsonage and an addition was built as our family grew. The disagreements died down over time after my installation. A great peace has descended over the congregation. I’ve had my rough moments with depression and weight gain. I also changed my lifestyle a few years ago, lost some weight, and still am working on all facets of my life. If the Lord sees fit to let me finish my service as a pastor in Momence, I am happy. We are well taken care of here. I count it all joy to serve the Lord in eastern Kankakee County, Illinois.

It seems like yesterday, and then, it seems like so long ago….

Septuagesima – Matthew 20:1-16

Whatever is right I will give you. That’s grace. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? That, too, is grace. Grace is a one-way street. The receiver can say no to the giver, but does so at their own peril. Why would anyone resist a gift or try to add or subtract to that gift with their suggestions? That’s what happens with those who work in the vineyard. They begrudge the owner of the vineyard. Twelve hours work, nine hours, six hours, maybe even three hours work, should bring more reward. Everyone, fair and square, receives what was promised.

Our sinful nature hates grace. It loves control. It loves power. When we think of God’s attributes, mercy, peace, joy, and grace rarely come to mind. Power and control usually are toward the top of the list. Ask any group of people to describe God. They might use words like “awesome” or “almighty”. Those are words of power and control. Yes, God is in control of His creation. The control He has, however, is not the control we want.

We want to control God’s control. We want the marionette strings. We want to be the neck that turns the head in whatever direction we want the head to look. When we hear the words of Psalm 9: The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble, we think of ourselves as much as we think of others. When it comes to God acting on the others, we would rather He not act on them so much as act on us first, last, and always. We’ll always be more oppressed than anyone. We’ll say or do anything in order to make sure God keeps looking at us and no one else.

If He does look at anyone else, we’ll be the ones pulling the strings to give them their just desserts. Psalm 9 goes on to say the needy shall not always be forgotten. I’m needy. Don’t forget me, Lord. Make sure You take care of me first, Lord, then, if there’s enough, You can give to them. But I’d rather you give to me first. Everything. Please. Thank you.

Letting go of control is freedom. It is also the most difficult and, frankly, dangerous thing to do. When we let go of controlling God, our spouse, our children, even our friends, God finally has room to work. God’s work upon His people is to show them how things really are rather than how we want things to be.

Imagine if you gave up on trying to put your best foot forward in all you say and do. The facade is gone. The perfect home, the perfect family, the perfect marriage, everything, gone. You have nothing to worry about anymore. The mask of “just so” is gone. Now you see everything as it is. You are loved by God in the righteousness that avails on account of Christ. As you are loved by Him, you love others in turn. You don’t count the cost of that love. Literally.

So it is with the workers in the parable. The owner of the vineyard doesn’t count the cost. He loves all the workers just the same. His wage is the same no matter how long they worked. The control freak in all of us can’t stand it. We know that more work equals more pay. Not so in the kingdom of heaven. All the people loved by God get exactly the same thing. What is crazy in the world is graceful in God’s kingdom.

God could be graceless and give you what you actually deserve. How would you like a nice cold plate of eternal death? Perhaps a reservation at a cabin in the burning lake of fire that is never quenched? You could go for a nice cruise in the brimstone infested waters for eternity. Maybe you’d rather have a room at the everlasting separation from God hotel. You get what you deserve there. Everything you never thought of receiving is exactly what you get when you begrudge His generosity.

In Christ, however, what you get is Jesus Himself quenching that burning lake. He cancels your room at the everlasting separation from the Father hotel. You get what you don’t deserve from Jesus. You get peace that transcends everything your mind can think of. You get the pleasant surprise of joy in believing that nothing can separate you from God’s love in Jesus. You, at last, are free. No more worries about what you’re going to do about your salvation. That’s taken care of in Christ’s blood and righteousness that covers all your sin. You have all the time in the world to love Him in loving all those you know and don’t know.

The last thing you want to hear from God’s mouth is take what belongs to you and go. What belongs to you when you begrudge His generosity is death by control. God does you no wrong when He gives you something you don’t deserve and you certainly didn’t earn. He calls it grace. Grace is His favor abundantly poured out over you. He is well-pleased with you because He is well-pleased with His Son’s work of redemption for you. Grace is a state of being. It is the water we drink, so to speak, in Christ. Though we are sinners and deserve only His wrath, He instead gives us His righteousness in Jesus. You live. That is what is in your pay envelope on Judgment Day. Whether you’re paid last or first, by the grace of God there goes you with Jesus into the New Creation. That’s grace. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

The More You Know, The More You Don’t Know

“For Thy testimonies are my meditation, and Thy statutes my counsel.” (Psalm 119:24)

For to meditate means to think deeply and to explore the inner parts and always to follow the spirit within and not to construct a wall for yourself and set up a boundary, as if you had already achieved the end of understanding or acting. Therefore I have rightly said that the testimonies require faith above all, so that in what you do not yet understand you believe one who understands and you do not by your own authority set up the meaning for yourself or fight against another in what you do not know or about which you have doubts. Therefore to meditate means to know the testimonies inwardly since they are the signs and attestations of things to come. He who does not understand the Scripture in a relative way or does not work toward the future, namely, that he always knows that there is something left over for him to understand and do and faithfully to await and desire finally to understand and do, he certainly does not let the Scripture be the testimonies of the Lord. But now, until the life to come, there is always something left over to understand and to do. Therefore you must never be proud, as if you were already full, rich, and well provided. Always they are to you testimonies of what you have not yet understood or done. And yet you ought to wish and expect to do and understand them, as above: “My soul has coveted to long for Thy ordinances at all times” (Psalm 119:20). Not that it is necessary for us to understand and do everything in this life, but that the mind should be prepared never to want to stop doing and understanding more fully to eternity, to know no boundary, no end, no restriction. This is what it means to be in the spirit of freedom, for which no law and statute has been set, because it does more than is commanded, so that if one could live eternally, one would strive eternally to know and do, and never move backward. He is the one whose meditation is the testimonies of the Lord and who keeps His testimonies.

Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 119 (LW 11:434-435)

Transfiguration of Our Lord – Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21

The season of Epiphany is a time to listen. Every season in the church year is about listening, but Epiphany especially is a season of listening. We hear how God’s only-begotten Son manifests Himself to His people through signs. We have a short Epiphany season this year so we didn’t get to listen to Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. We didn’t hear the 12-year-old Jesus confound those in the temple who heard Him speak of His coming. We didn’t hear Jesus cleanse a leper, heal the centurion’s servant, or calm the sea in a storm. We did hear, however, His baptism in the Jordan River by John and the voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Father’s beloved Son.

We hear the Father’s voice again today with Peter, James, and John. The Father had to interrupt Peter’s commentary on the mountain top. Peter wasn’t listening. He was too busy talking about what he saw and what would be nice to do. His reaction is the natural one. It’s not every day you’re invited to see Moses and Elijah standing on either side of Jesus talking about what will soon happen to the Christ. It’s natural to want to stay there for a while and listen to the conversation.

What Peter learned that day, and what he later wrote about in his second epistle, is that it is far better to listen than it is to talk. There is always time to talk about what you have seen and heard, especially to those who are outside the Christian faith. Before you can talk about what you have seen and heard, though, you must first listen before you speak.

Peter writes about what happened that day when Christ was transfigured in today’s epistle. Note what he says after he talks about what happened that day. We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

What makes the prophetic word more fully confirmed? The prophetic word is confirmed by what holy men of God wrote after they had seen and heard it happen. The apostolic preaching of Jesus Christ is carried through the centuries by those who pass down what was once seen and heard, making it fresh for a new generation through proclaiming the Scriptures anew and applying the Scriptures to your situation in life.

Yes, pastor, I understand that. But how do we know it is sure? Ah, there’s a fantastic question! The prophetic word has been passed down century after century in almost every language that exists, including those languages no longer spoken. Though the word is applied to different circumstances in different cultures, the content of the word remains the same. The content of the prophetic word is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That’s the conversation happening on the mountain that Peter, James, and John are privileged to hear. That’s the Good News proclaimed to you again today.

The Good News, the prophetic word more fully confirmed, is that God becomes man in order that man is brought into eternal fellowship with God. Seeing Jesus as He is according to the flesh, you would be hard pressed to believe this prophetic word. You’re not alone. Peter uses the phrase cleverly devised myths. Granted that a myth is not necessarily synonymous with something that is false, yet so many understand a myth that way. It’s too good to be true. Worse yet, it is impossible for God to become man and yet remain both God and man.

There’s an awful lot of talk still today about what some might call cleverly devised myths. It’s easy to use that epithet when you don’t want to hear a need for the salvation of mankind. How dare anyone call something that I think is perfectly fine a “sin”. How things are right now is as good as it is going to get. This life, right now, is the mountain top. We might as well go ahead and set up our tabernacle here and live for today. There’s no sin, there’s no hope for eternal life, and there’s no need to preach a prophetic word when it’s obvious that preaching can be twisted and perverted through the centuries. Nothing that good lasts that long without inaccuracies.

Perhaps that is what remains amazing about the Christian faith. God leaves the preaching of the prophetic word in the hands of sinful people. Maybe churches would be full if an angel from heaven descends every weekend to preach a sermon direct from God’s mouth to your ears. That’s how it is today in the preaching of the Gospel, though. Granted I’m not an angel, but I am given the noble task of being a messenger, an angel, so to speak, of good news.

The Good News is that God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ, has covered all your sin in His precious blood. Listen to Him in His Word. Listen to Him perform signs to heal the sick and raise the dead. Listen to Him tell His adversaries Who He is and what He comes to do for them, whether or not they want to believe it. Listen to Him give up His spirit, rest in a tomb, and rise from the dead victorious over death and Satan. Listen to Him bring us to the fullness of our inheritance in heaven. Listen to Him drown you in baptismal water, all the while putting His name on you, adopting you as His own child, and declaring that all He has belongs to you.

The same voice that came from the burning bush to Moses comes to Peter, James, John, you, and me today, telling us to listen to Him. You are put into Christ. All that He does, especially His death and His rising from the tomb, is for you. When you listen to Him, then you can open your lips to praise Him and tell others what He has done for you that they might have what is given to you. Listen to Him. Listen to the prophetic word more fully confirmed by the apostolic preaching of Jesus Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. His Word declares you free from death and hell, and an heir of everlasting life in Christ. Have no fear. Your enemies are made your footstool. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

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