Monday, December 22, 2008

Ponder Anew What the Almighty Can Do

It strikes me that there is always the danger that the story of Jesus’ birth can become commonplace for people, especially adults. We remember dozens of Christmases past, perhaps quite fondly for some—associating it with good memories with family or friends, beloved traditions, moments of unexpected generosity. Or perhaps some don’t have such fond memories about Christmas. Maybe family were never very close, or quarrels broke out with the holiday stress, or maybe a loved one passed away, as often seems to happen around the holidays. For some Christmas means it’s time for the obligatory worship service, perhaps so as not to lose the sense of reminiscing that surrounds this holy day.

But regardless of how intensively or extensively we celebrate Christmas, and whatever our Christmas traditions may be, it is all too easy to overlook the significance of Jesus’ birth. All too easily does it become sentimentalized as a cozy, dreamlike story that serves merely to reawaken nostalgia and holiday generosity. Or we’ve heard the story so many times, that the lines draw yawns as it seems so familiar as to have lost its surprise.

But I urge you to take this Christmas, and every Christmas forward in your future, to hear the story afresh, as with new eyes and ears. Behold it like you did when you first remember hearing it as a child, or as an adult. In the words of the hymn-writer, “Ponder anew, what the Almighty can do, as with His love He befriends you” (Praise to the Lord, the Almighty. LSB 790). Ponder or consider again what the wonders of God’s salvation through that holy birth mean for you.

Long had the paths of human life and holiness strayed apart from each other, as mankind has walked in sin from the time of our earthly father Adam. And sin bore evil fruit in the lives of all, as idolatry, abuse of God’s name, failure to worship God, disobedience to parents and authorities, hatred, murder, lust, adultery, theft, lies, jealousy and coveting followed. All of creation was wracked in sin when Jesus came.

But in the miracle of His birth from the Virgin Mary, God’s own Son pierced the darkness of the sinful world, invading the corrupt creation with the light of His coming. And for the first time since Adam and Eve, the paths of human life and holiness intersected again, and there was born one who would walk perfectly in the path of God’s commandments. The intersection of human life and holiness took place in the conception, pregnancy, and birth of Jesus Christ. Whenever a new child is conceived or born, or when we see a pregnant mother, let it remind us of the Christmas Joy of the most Holy God, who graciously condescended to be conceived by the promised Word of God (Luke 1:31) and born a human child. That born in humble human flesh, God would be worshipped and adored by hosts of angels, that lowly shepherds would witness the nativity of their Savior, who is Christ the Lord. That wise sages from distant lands would hail and worship His coming as the dawning of a new Kingdom for humanity (Matt. 2).

So with renewed wonder this Christmas, let us come and worship Him who is Christ the Lord. “All that has life and breath, come now with praises before Him! Let the Amen, sound from His people again; gladly forever adore Him!” (LSB 790). What better response to the mystery of His birth than to forever-praise Him, who with His love has befriended us? Merry Christmas!

Sermon on Luke 1:26-38, for the 4th Sunday in Advent. "Jesus: the Forever-King"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. I want to draw your attention to a common theme between our Old Testament and Gospel readings today. The theme of God’s promise to establish a “house” for David. In order to make the connection more clear, I’m going to read the few verses that were left out, 2 Samuel 7:11-16:

“I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’”

The sermon is based on this reading, and the Gospel from Luke 1, Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to a Son. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Samuel 7 describes King David after God had given peace from his enemies. David was settled and secure in a palace of cedar, Israel was at peace, and he desired to build a house, a temple for the Lord—to replace the tabernacle, or tent of worship that had been used for about 400 years since the Exodus. God denied David’s request to build a house for the Lord. But He did say that after his death, God would establish a house for David. God was going to raise up one of David’s own physical descendants to not only build a house for the Lord’s name, like David wanted, but also to establish his “house” forever. As you can probably tell, the word “house” is being used in more than one sense here. David wanted to build a physical house, a temple, for the Lord. And his son Solomon eventually would build a physical temple for the Lord in Jerusalem.

But this wasn’t the house that God was promising to David. God was promising him that his own offspring would be established to rule on his throne forever. The word “house” was now being used in a figurative sense, to speak of the dynasty of David’s family. The family lineage that would rule on his throne. God promised that David’s house and his kingdom would endure forever before God, and his throne would be established forever. But how could an earthly kingdom and dynasty be established forever? Was God promising an eternal political rule for David’s family? Did He just mean a really, really long time? No, God said that it would be “forever before me.” The problem is that earthly kings always die, and political kingdoms don’t last. So how could even a family lineage be preserved forever? Even the political nation-state of Israel that exists today, can’t claim to be the succession of David’s throne. As a recent theologian wisely observed, “You can’t have a forever-kingdom, unless you’re a forever-person.”

And further, the house that God was establishing for David, wasn’t just for him, but it was to be a house for the name of the Lord. So when we fast-forward 1,000 years after David, to the Galilean countryside, in a tiny, despised town called Nazareth, we can begin to appreciate the significance of the angel Gabriel’s message to Mary. The angel Gabriel came to a godly young virgin, pledged to be married to an honest carpenter, both who were descended of the great family of David. But 1,000 years after the Golden Age of David and Solomon’s reign, there was no descendant of David ruling on the throne, and they were certainly not living in cedar palaces. And what does the angel Gabriel promise to this young virgin Mary, but that she’ll conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit, and give birth to a son named Jesus, listen carefully—who the Lord God will give the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. She was to be the mother of the One through whom all of God’s promises to David would be kept. She carried those promises in her womb. She was to be the mother of the “forever-person” who’d be able to rule the “forever-kingdom” from the throne of His father David.

She wasn’t a queen or princess, or living in royal palaces, but to her, a humble virgin, would be given the high favor and honor of the Lord, to be mother to Jesus, the King who would take the throne of David. The significance of Gabriel’s message, was that God was fulfilling His promise to David, to establish his house forever, and to make it a house for the Lord’s name. Further, God was fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would conceive and give birth as a sign to the house of David. By choosing a descendant of David, God kept His promise that it’d be one of David’s own physical offspring that would rise to the throne. By performing the miracle of Jesus being divinely conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, God entered Himself into human flesh—a true forever-person, who could reign and establish David’s throne forever. And not just for David himself, but for the name of the Lord.

But Jesus, though presented with gifts for a King at His birth, didn’t become a political king, as so many anticipated. Nor did He grow up in wealthy palaces. He wasn’t placed on the throne by the loyal subjects of David, realizing that David’s heir had come to claim His throne. No, Jesus first had to pass through the ordeal of His arrest and mistreatment by the Jews and Roman authorities. He faced the scorn of His own people, His own subjects. He was rejected as a king, but mockingly given a crown of thorns, a reed for a scepter, and a purple robe. Flogged and bloody, He stood before the people while Pontius Pilate cried: “Behold, your King!” They shouted for His crucifixion. Pilate asked if he should crucify their king, and they said, “We have no king but Caesar.” A King whose subjects disowned Him, He was unceremoniously enthroned on a crude wooden cross; a sign affixed above His head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

It was through this ordeal that Jesus would rise to His father David’s throne, because He bore this chastisement, this punishment, for the iniquity, the guilt of the people. He was truly called Great, and Son of the Most High, for this king bore the judgment of His own people. He took our scorn and guilt, so that He might be vindicated in His resurrection from the dead. Conquering such an evil death, He was exalted to the Highest Place, so that He’ll reign forever. His resurrection from the dead proved that He was a forever-person, that death had no hold on Him. So He’s worthy to be the Forever-King to rule on David’s throne. And of course if His throne is forever, that has implications for all of us. So why should it matter to us, what promises God made about establishing the house and throne of David, over 3,000 years ago? For one, Jesus’ rule as the Forever-King extends over us as well, and all humans are under His authority. And secondly, He invites us to become part of His “house,” members of the house of David, accepting by faith His reign over us, and obeying Him.

Jesus’ kingdom, as He told Pilate, wasn’t of this world. It was a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly or political kingdom. And His rule extends over all, so that at His coming, every knee shall bow. In our epistle reading this theme of eternal kingship comes out too, as Paul spoke of the gospel being proclaimed so that all nations might believe and obey him (Rom. 16:26). How is Jesus’ kingship and reign spread among us and throughout the world? It’s not by political force. It’s not by advancing armies of Christians into pagan lands and converting people at the point of the sword. It’s not by secluding ourselves from the outside world and forming insulated Christian communities that are protected from outside influence. It’s not by becoming Christian chameleons and blending into the surrounding culture. No, the kingdom of Jesus’ reign, the Son of the Most High, is advanced by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where it’s received in our hearts by faith. The Holy Spirit works the spread of this kingdom, within people’s hearts.

Here we see and follow the example of the virgin Mary, who upon hearing Gabriel’s great message of blessing, responded in faith: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” She expressed that she was a willing and loyal subject of the Lord, prepared to do His will. May we respond to Jesus’ reign in the same way. May we stand together as Christians, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” Knowing that whatever God has planned for our lives, it’ll work together for our good. Mary was given stunning news, that would seem inexplicable to many or all who heard it. She was asked to carry out a hard task, that involved self-sacrifice. But she willingly trusted herself to the reign of the King who would be born from her womb. She trusted the Son of the Most High, the King of a Forever-Kingdom. She accepted the difficulties of her task with the words: “May it be to me as you have said.”

God often calls us to difficult tasks and places. Life as a family provider isn’t easy in these economic times, trying to make ends meet. Life as person of responsibility over a school, preschool, church, business, or community group may present unique challenges, tests of character, stands of conviction, and honesty. Life as a student or youth isn’t easy in a time when authority isn’t respected, when pleasure and money seem more desirable than self-control and wisdom and education, and your character will be tested. Each of us have unique callings in life that present us with the chance to be a servant of the Lord, and to act with integrity and obedience to Him. To seek to follow His ways, trust His reign over us, and to be able to repent and seek His forgiveness when we know we’ve failed. May we accept the difficulties of our task with the faith-filled statement: “May it be to me as you have said.”

To speak those words isn’t just to accept the hardship of life, but it’s also to receive His blessing, just as for Mary. For as she accepted the Lord’s will for her to bear the Son of the Most High, the Forever-King Jesus, she also received the Forever-Kingdom that He was bringing into the world. By faith, she became part of God’s working of salvation, to bring the reign of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, and rest from our enemies of sin, death, and the devil. So when we speak those words: “May it be to me as you have said”—we’re acknowledging Jesus’ kingdom coming among us, with His same forgiveness and salvation. He works for our good, because He’s a just and merciful King. For us who stand in His kingdom, who’re members of His house, we are truly “highly favored,” by the grace of God. And we can wait in confidence and joyful expectation for His Second Advent, and the full realization of His reign over the New Heavens and Earth of His Forever-Kingdom. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. How did Jesus rise to the glory of His eternal throne?
2. How are we part of the “house of David?”
3. What was the only way that God’s promise to establish a forever kingdom could be fulfilled?
4. How is Jesus’ reign exhibited in your life?
5. In what ways is His reign tested in your life?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Podcasting Sermons Experiment Part Deux

Hello all,
I've switched to Podbean for my pocasting service, which was the one originally recommended to me. It seems to have a clean format and easy to use. I gave up on GCast after many failed attempts to get my files on the site. Feedback is always welcome!
-Josh

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11, 2nd Sunday in Advent, "The Word of the Lord Endures Forever"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Isaiah 40:1-11, beginning with the words: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The prophet Isaiah carries this message to a people harassed by warfare with enemies, laboring in the darkness of uncertainty, mourning underneath their sorrows’ load. They were a people living with the guilt of their sin and disobedience to God, facing the punishment and penalty of their sin. Whether they lived before, during, or after the captivity in Babylon, or under the harsh rule of the Romans, many things conspired to quench the hope of God’s people. God’s people were waiting—they were waiting for the Advent, or coming of the Lord, who’d comfort them in their cheerless circumstances. This season of Advent, we wait with them, saints of the Old Testament. But now we’re waiting for the second Advent or coming of our Lord, and sharing in His same message of comfort, even as we’ve circumstances that would try to quench our hope. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

God gives poetic words to the prophet to describe humanity, in their life, trials, and death. He says: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Is. 40:6-8)..God pictures mankind as fleeting, transient. Our lives bloom quickly and have the beauty or glory of the flowers. But they wither and fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on us. As much as modern medicine and cosmetic surgery and diet and exercise plans try to capture our human beauty and strength at their peak, and try to freeze the effects of time, the grass still withers, and the flower falls. Our beauty and strength too must fade, as we age and time takes its toll. And death would seem the inevitable victor.

The Psalmist again captures this poetry of life, with these words: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it’s gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments” (Ps. 103:14-18). Both of these passages describe our days like the grass and the flowers, all too short in life, and too quickly passed and forgotten. I suppose one could react negatively to these comparisons, and see them as depressing. Or someone might try to deny the reality of our fragile nature, and try to fight against aging and death with every tool in our powerfully equipped medical arsenal. But if we see them as depressing, or as a hopeless view of our mortality, we are missing what God is telling us in Isaiah and the Psalms.

Isaiah wrote: “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” In contrast to the fleeting days of our lives, to the constant change and upheaval of our short existence, God’s Word stands forever. His Word remains unchanged. And Psalm 103 tells us that God “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” God knows our frailty since He made mankind from dust, and even more so since God Himself became incarnate in Jesus Christ, and lived and died and rose as a human being. He literally knows our frame inside out. And the Psalmist adds: “the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” God’s steadfast love is eternal for those who fear and obey Him. God isn’t shifting or changing like so much in life, but is eternally dependable. But the fact that the Word of our God endures forever, isn’t just a contrast to our frail and changing state—it’s the very cure for our deficiency!

Rather than despair of the seeming futility and impermanence of life, in God’s Word we have the eternal anchor for our soul. People and generations will pass away, troubles and hardships will come and go, as times of prosperity will also, but the word our God stands forever. The comfort of His good news outlasts all. It’s the eternal word of comfort, peace, and hope. What stands forever today?....It’s certainly not our financial security, our job security, our health security, or even architecture. We have no guarantees, especially in these troubled times, whether our savings or investments will hold out, whether our jobs will remain, whether our health holds out. All these and other concerns cloud over people’s horizons. But even these are mere distractions from our real problem, which is sin and death. The devil would be pleased to have us worrying about symptoms while the real malady of our sin remains untreated and unattended. So we worry about all sorts of things outside our control, that Jesus told us not to worry about. But trust not in hopes to build a wall of security around yourself. Rather trust in the comfort of God’s eternal word, the Gospel that stands forever, and know that it’s larger than our circumstances; larger than our worries and problems that are here today, gone tomorrow.

1 Peter quotes this verse from Isaiah, as “the Word of the Lord endures forever;” and goes on to explain what this “word” is—it’s the “good news that was preached to you.” It’s God’s message of comfort and love, the proclamation given to Isaiah and the prophets to comfort God’s people in distress. But this message of comfort, the good news, isn’t just warm words or holiday cheer. It’s not empty promises to the downtrodden or fearful. It’s not what some skeptics accuse Christianity of being: namely escapism or a “crutch for the weak.” Rather the good news of God’s Word is founded on Jesus’ coming into the world, His birth that we anticipate this Advent. His coming as the promised Good Shepherd we hear about in Isaiah today. God’s real and personal entrance into history as a human being, to tenderly lead His people.

Jesus’ Advent was the coming of the promised comfort for God’s people. The aged Simeon, who waited in the Temple for the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, cried for joy when he saw the baby Jesus. It says that he was waiting for the “consolation of Israel” and that God had promised he wouldn’t die until he saw the Lord’s Christ (Luke 2:25-26). Jesus was indeed the consolation, the comfort for Israel, as His coming marked the revealing of God’s glory for all mankind to see. Among us, He grew up like the grass and flowers of the field, but with “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2). He came the King, in pauper’s clothing; the Lord in the form of a servant. Yet it was for Him that messengers would “Go tell it on the mountain.” For Him that good tidings came to Jerusalem, and preachers would lift up their voice in a shout to say: “Here is your God!”

And He who grew up like the grass and flowers, also withered and fell among us. Jesus, God in flesh, joined Himself so intimately to our frail nature, that He suffered and died among us. The breath of the Lord blew on Him, and He died the fateful death on the cross, taking our human frailty to His grave. That there in death He might lie for three days, that at His resurrection the cry might again go out: “lift up your voice…do not be afraid!...Here is your God! See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and His arm rules for Him. See, His reward is with Him, and His recompense accompanies Him.” We see how great a comfort it is for God’s people that “the word of the Lord endures forever!” Not just a contrast between our momentary lives with God’s eternity. Rather it shows us how Jesus, the Word made flesh, joined Himself to our dying human race, that through His death He would conquer death. He comes forth from His grave with power, the power to rule the nations by His arm! The reward He brings for those who fear Him is forgiveness and eternal life. He’s the cure for our frail and fleeting lives, marked by sin for death. Trusting and hoping on the Lord Jesus, we share in His resurrection, so that death will not be the victor. By faith we’re attached to the Word of the Lord that endures forever. Through Him, we’ve the comfort that goes beyond mere words, but is The Word!

Here’s the comfort that speaks to our heart, God’s Word of forgiveness and everlasting life, a proclamation of Good News from Jesus, His Son. The Christian faith is far from promising an escape from difficult circumstances, or a denial of the reality around us. Christians too, suffer the effects of a sinful and broken world. We bleed the same, face the same health concerns, feel the same effects of an ailing economy and the fear of joblessness. We too wither and fall like the grass and flowers. The difference isn’t in what we endure in this life, and it’s not a matter of fleeing from trials, or denying death. Rather, the difference between the Christian and the unbeliever, is that we have these words of comfort, the word of our God that stands forever.

In a sea of change and transience, where so much is uncertain, we have the eternal anchor for our soul—God’s Word. The difference is between a life of empty pursuit of money and pleasure like there’s no tomorrow, blissfully unaware; or worse, the potential despair at the meaningless of existence. In contrast the Christian life is one of taking up our cross, and walking after our Lord Jesus by faith, knowing the comfort of His Word, having the good tidings of His Gospel. Though sin and death might conspire to quench our hope, we have the Eternal Word of comfort, that our sins have been paid for, and that Christ’s coming will bring an end to our hard service. For the Eternal Word has joined Himself to our mortality, that though we may wither and fade, there’s promised for us the resurrection of the body. There’s nothing I would prefer to anchor my life to than God’s Word; nothing else that can give the security, the comfort, and strength, than the Word of the Lord that endures forever. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1.What in your life brings home the often sad reality that “surely the people are grass; the grass withers and the flowers fall?”
2.What specific comforts are you brought by the truth that “The Word of the Lord endures forever?”
3.Did you know that “The Word of the Lord Endures Forever” (1 Pet. 1:25) became a slogan of the 16th Century Lutheran Reformation, as they upheld Scripture alone? The Latin translation Verbum Dominum Manet Aeternum, abbreviated VDMA is still imprinted on some Lutheran books, letters, etc.
4.What are the differences between the comforts and distractions of the world, and the comforts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
5.In what way(s) is Jesus like a shepherd?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Truth is Not Changed...

We are the product of intelligent design.
- or -
We are not the product of intelligent design.
** ** ** **
One of the above statements must be true.
- and -
Truth is not changed by your theory or mine.

Re-read and consider these statements carefully. These brief deductive statements open the book I’m currently reading, titled The Cave Painting: A Parable of Science, by Roddy M. Bullock. The first part of the book is a dramatic novel about a scientist who discovers a remarkable underground cave painting, and promotes it as an example of how unguided natural processes can give rise to beautiful and complex features, in the absence of any human role. The book follows the story of a young girl who remains unconvinced that this “apparent painting” has no painter—and sets out to prove that it was no mere accident. Of course the story is a parable for the modern debate over evolution and intelligent design. The latter half of the book gives the scientific references to quotes and points of discussion in the parable, and shows their parallel in the real scientific debate over the origin of life.

The statements above in italics (especially that “Truth is not changed by your theory or mine”) are particularly insightful today, where even the suggestion of knowing “the Truth” is openly ridiculed or “pooh-poohed.” “Truth is relative!”, we hear. “That’s your truth, this is my truth!”, people opine. Or people assume that “truth,” like beauty, “is in the eye of the beholder” (Bullock, 306). But all of these notions about truth are not only unsatisfactory, they are illogical.

Truth is not changed by your theory or mine. Bullock illustrates this simple “truth” by an example of a courtroom trial. The actual events of what happened on the scene of an automobile accident are a matter of real, historical occurrence. And no matter what versions of the event are argued by the prosecution or defense, and regardless of which side best persuades the jury—the underlying facts of the case remain unchanged.

Likewise, “the cause of our human origins is, of course, an actual, objective, historical happening. The happening was either a completely natural, chance process, or it was guided (at least in part) by intelligence. There is no other option, and the truth of our actual origin is unchanged by what anyone thinks about it.” (Bullock, 306). This is to say that you can’t have it both ways. Two contradicting and mutually exclusive ideas cannot be true at the same time.

When it comes to seeking after “the Truth,” we do well to remember that it is not changed by our theories or opinions. Sometimes the Truth may have uncomfortable implications, or require us to change tightly held ideas that cannot be reconciled with the Truth. And if it is true that Almighty God created this universe and all life, then we should expect to see “tell-tale” signs that life is no accident, but was intelligently designed! I can think of dozens of examples (observable by science) of God’s “fingerprints” in creation…have you considered them too? (Psalm 19)

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Merit or Inherit?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Matthew 25, Jesus describing His return for the Final Judgment. Only a short time before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, He is prophesying about the end of time. Confident of His coming victory over sin and death on the cross, Jesus looks to the Final Judgment, where He will be exalted on His throne of glory, seated at the right hand of God the Father in power. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Drawing close to the end of the church year, themes of Jesus’ return and the judgment prevail. For some, these Scriptures are frightening, and put us in mind of our mortality. For others they raise fears about how we’ll face the Final Judgment and how we’ll come through it. For still others, ignorance means bliss, and we pretend not to think about these things, but carry on business as usual, as if Jesus hadn’t warned us that the end will come, and unexpectedly at that. But my hope is that you’ll all be able to welcome that coming judgment, praying for it in the words of the ancient Christian communion liturgy: “Maranatha! Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor. 16:22). We anticipate and pray for Jesus return, “Come, Lord Jesus!” even as He comes to us in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. For a day is appointed for His return, when surrounded by all His angels in glory, all nations will be gathered before His throne for judgment.

Jesus makes it clear that all people will be gathered for judgment—there’s no escaping it, whether a person would believe in God or not, he must face the judgment. How a person believes will make the ultimate difference about how they’ll come through that judgment. Jesus will separate believers and unbelievers like a shepherd would separate sheep from goats. He places the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on His left. The sheep and goats might graze together, much like the parable of the wheat and the tares (or weeds), where believers and unbelievers coexist in this world. But at the judgment, they’ll be permanently separated.

Jesus’ description of the judgment raises the question, “What is the role of works in the judgment?” Since we all must face the judgment, it’s of great concern to know the role of good works is in our salvation. As you know, this was at the heart of the Reformation. Throughout our history, Lutherans have been accused of not teaching the importance of works, because we’ve so greatly emphasized salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So do we need to revise our thinking somewhat, to factor good works in, so that we at least partly merit our salvation by good works? Before any conclusions, let’s examine Jesus’ words closely.

When King Jesus calls to the sheep on His right hand, He speaks these words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me ” (Matt. 25:34-36). Jesus declares them “blessed by my Father” and He acknowledges their works of charity, generosity, hospitality, and compassion. But Jesus’ announcement is a great surprise to them! Call it the “surprise of the blessed.” The blessed who’ve done these things don’t even remember doing them! They say, “Lord, when did we do these things?” The blessed are forgetful of their own good works! It’s as if they did them without even thinking about it. Without any thought of reward or repayment. That’s to say they did them selflessly. And of greater surprise to the blessed is the fact that their good works and charity were done in service to Jesus Himself! Their surprise is: “Lord, when did we do these things, to you?” “The King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

Martin Luther said the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of love, motivates our desire to help the “least of these.” He wrote: “As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones.” Christ in His needy ones. This is part of the beautiful surprise for the blessed, that as they served and cared for the least of these, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—they did it all for Christ. Jesus Christ is found in His needy ones. Those calling for our mercy and help provide us an opportunity to serve Jesus. Jesus who sought us when we were spiritually starved and parched with thirst. Jesus who helped us when we were strangers to God, naked of the righteousness that avails before God. Sick and imprisoned in our trespasses and sins. He came to us and freed us. And now we must render love and support to Christ in His needy ones.

As Jesus completes His judgment, there remains another surprise; call it the “surprise of the cursed.” Jesus speaks to the goats on His left: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt. 25:41-43). Those whom Jesus has declared cursed show equal surprise about their works. Like the blessed, they don’t ever remember being given opportunities to serve Jesus. But their forgetfulness isn’t of what they’ve done for Him, but of what they’ve left undone. “Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:44-46).

The cursed had overlooked Christ in His needy ones. Selfishly, and seeing no profit to themselves, they displayed an uncaring, indifferent attitude to the needy. Inhospitable, greedy, cold toward the need presented to them. Like the rich man who let Lazarus suffer in humility at his doorstep, with dogs licking his wounds. We too should recognize our selfishness, and the times when we pass by opportunity to show charity to Christ in His needy ones, to put our faith into practice. We can recognize the good that we’ve left undone, and confess this as sin too. How often are we attuned to the need of our neighbor? Often we’re blindly unaware of who’s in need, right beside us. Lord help us to open our eyes to other people’s needs.

But now that we’ve seen how the Final Judgment plays out, we return to our original question, of “What is the role good works play in the judgment?” It seems at first glance that the blessed are saved by their works. The title of my sermon: “Merit or Inherit?” gets at this question. Do we merit or earn salvation, as a payment for our good works? Or rather, do we inherit salvation, as a son or daughter receives the inheritance from a dead parent? Well, don’t take my word for it, listen again to what Jesus said: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Inherit! Jesus’ invitation to the blessed is to inherit the kingdom! It reminds us of the beatitudes, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Inheritance doesn’t come because we’ve earned it, or as wages for what we have done (Rom. 4), but inheritance is a privilege of sonship, whether natural born or adopted. The very word inheritance speaks loads of grace, not of obligation, not of wages, or due for what we have earned. And we’re heirs with Christ, and have the Spirit of adoption as sons (Rom. 8:14-17). We inherit eternal life. We do not merit it. That inheritance is passed along to us sons and daughters of God, His will being sealed through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What else in this passage speaks of the fact that eternal life is given by grace, and not by works? The fact that this kingdom was prepared from the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4-5 clarifies this—namely that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5). Before we were even alive, before the foundations of the world were even laid in creation, God had already chosen and predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. Ages before our first breath, before we’d done a single act of good or evil, He’d already chosen us, and prepared a kingdom for us to inherit. Pure gift.

What about the cursed, who go to eternal punishment, you ask? Where they also marked for destruction for eternity? What did Jesus say to the cursed? He said, “Depart…into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” A pastor I recently heard interviewed, said that the fact that the eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels, and not prepared by purpose for human souls, reflects something about the heart of God. As God declares elsewhere, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezek. 18:23). God does not desire or delight in the punishment of the wicked, and hell was intended for the devil and his angels, not humans. But humans will go there by virtue of their rejection of God. So Jesus warns us in advance.

Also, when we look at what marks the sheep from the goats, it’s the presence or absence of good works. It’s not a matter of fine gradations and counting up how many good works one has, or weighing them in the scale against our sins. To understand the role of works in the judgment, we might remember the words of the hymn writer: “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing; and by its fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living” (LSB 555:9). Good works are the evidence or proof of faith, and the fruit by which faith is known. Even our good works were planned out before us by God (Eph. 2:10). So yes, our good works accompany us to heaven, and God does recognize or acknowledge them. But all that we receive is pure gift and inheritance. Our works are acceptable to God because He’s cleansed them of sin through Jesus Christ, our King and Shepherd.

His love in us was and is the source of any and every good that we do in this life, in service to our neighbor, in aid to Christ in His needy ones. Good works do not save, but they provide evidence of the love of Christ in us. The absence of good works proves the lack of faith, in the case of the unbeliever. The blessed do not keep tally of their good works, but are forgetful of them, serving others with the selflessness of Christ living in them. And most of all, when we “have done all that [we] were commanded, [we’ll] say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10) From first to last, ”Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). We have earned and deserved nothing, but Jesus’ death and resurrection has sealed our inheritance, His love predestined us before the world began, and even our good works were prepared and performed through us by His love. So “Come, you blessed by my Father, Inherit!” Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sermon on Revelation 21:5, 21:9-22:5, for All Saints Day

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, St. John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s reading, we experience the visual feast that God revealed to John. The vision of the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. We peer into the future in this text that is overflowing with vivid and colorful images that express the vibrancy of heaven. Heaven will not be dull or drab or boring, as so many wrongly assume, but will be a paradise greater than Adam and Eve knew in Eden. In Revelation we encounter a spectacular vision of the new heavens and new earth, and all the images of this paradise spill over each other like a sparkling, tumbling, rushing waterfall, pouring over the reader with cool, life-giving freshness. Much like a glimpse into a kaleidoscope provides a rush of colors and moving images faster than the eye can take them all in, the glimpse of heaven that John sees is rich and full-textured, but beyond what words can fully capture.

Nevertheless, we must try to capture some of it, and make sense of the flood of images in the whole book of Revelation. We need an anchor point to tie it all together. That anchor point is the throne of God. All of the visions should be understood in light of God and the Lamb, who are seated on this heavenly throne, and from it rule over all the events in time and eternity. God and the Lamb, Father and Son, who both bear the title “the Alpha and the Omega” which means the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Sharing this and other divine titles, and together receiving worship on the throne of God—it’s unmistakable that the Father and the Son are fully and truly equal and united as One True God.

God addresses John from the throne, describing what he is seeing: “Behold, I am making all things new!” The heavenly vision unfolds, displaying God’s new creation, beginning with the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Not the earthly city of Jerusalem, in its present state or even in a rebuilt and re-modified earthly state. Rather, it descends out of heaven from God, a new creation! “Behold,” God says, “I am making all things new!” A city unlike any other human city, brilliantly illuminated with the glory of God, sparkling like a precious jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. Walls of jasper, foundations of 12 precious stones, and 12 gates made with giant single pearls; the streets and the city are made of pure, transparent gold. Yet the book of Revelation is not the first place this glorious city appears. In part it’s depicted in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, and other prophets, and yet as we mentally tour this future city, we see things that draw us back all the way to the beginning of creation, in the book of Genesis.

Peering into the furthest glimpses of the future that God gives in Revelation, we might be surprised to see things that echo back to the first creation. We find that the first and last books of the Bible have some surprising connections. Genesis: the beginning of all things, the Creation; and Revelation: the end of all things, what we call Eschatology, or the study of the end times. Creation and Eschatology are like the bookends to the Bible and all of history. Sandwiched between them is the human story of our salvation history, with glimpses of the eternity that lies beyond this present creation that is wearing old like a garment. Once the old heavens and earth pass away and are destroyed, God from His throne will be making all things new in the new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Pet. 3:18).

Even though the old creation will have passed away, there are still echoes of the original paradise. For example, in the vision of the glorious new city, the city has no need of light from the sun or moon, for God and the Lamb will give it light. A subtle echo to the first chapter of Genesis, where God created light and darkness on the first day, but didn’t create the sun, moon, and stars till the fourth day of creation. Where did the light came from the first three days of creation? Most often it’s suggested that God Himself was the source of the light, just as He is here (cf. Is. 60:19-20). In the New Jerusalem, God and the Lamb are the sole source of light for the city and peoples. No need for the sun or moon or any lamps. In contrast to the first creation, there will be no darkness or night! With that, the gates of the city will never be shut—there will be no threat of war, or invaders, or evildoers coming through its gates. Unlike the earthly Jerusalem that has faced millennia of invaders and warfare, the heavenly Jerusalem leaves its gates perpetually opened in peace, because there will be no threat of darkness or evil. All is made new in the light of God’s glory and the lamp of the Lamb. The nations of the earth will walk in this light of God, acting in community and harmony.

Next, there’s a river of the water of life in the New Jerusalem, flowing down the streets. And where’s the source of this river of life? Nowhere else but issuing from the throne of God and of the Lamb! Much like the river that arose in the garden of Eden and split into four different rivers that watered the first paradise. Truly a life-giving river, the prophets say it waters all the desert lands, turns salt water into fresh, bearing abundant fish and sea-life, it produces plants and lush vegetation, making all things new as it flows from God’s throne.

Yet there appears to be a contradiction between John’s vision of the new city and Ezekiel’s vision. In John’s vision, he explicitly says that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, and the source of the river is God’s throne—but in Ezekiel the temple itself is the source for this great and mighty river. So which is it? John resolves this difficulty by informing us that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem because there is no need of a temple. The Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. So it agrees with Ezekiel when the river of life flows out from the throne of God and the Lamb, the same who are the Temple of the Holy City! Further we add to this the truth that Jesus said to the Jews, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought of the earthly temple, but Jesus was speaking about the temple of His body, which they would destroy on the cross, and He would raise from death in three days (John 2:19-22). So Jesus Himself is the temple, and from Him and God’s throne flows the living water, the water of life. Add on top of that the fact that Jesus described Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well as being the “spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). Christ makes all things new by granting eternal life from His wellspring of living water.

But why are we shown this heavenly vision, and what assurance do we have that we may arrive in that Holy City, the New Jerusalem, one day? Today we celebrate All Saints Day, which was November 1st, and we especially remember all the saints, the faithful believers who have died and gone on before us to our Lord in heaven. We remember and imitate their example of faith, trusting in the Lamb who’s seated on the throne. For we and they have been granted a new citizenship to that Holy City—a citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20). Through Christ we’re fellow citizens with the saints in heaven (Eph. 2:18-20). How have we and the saints in heaven gained our citizenship? We who were once aliens and foreigners? How’ve we been welcomed into this glorious kingdom, to stand before the throne of Him who’s making all things new, for us? When St. John sees the saints gathered in heaven, worshipping before God’s throne, he notices at least two important details: 1) they’re clothed in white robes, 2) they have God’s name written on their foreheads.

Earlier in John’s vision, an angel asks him who these are clothed in white robes and from where have they come? John puts the question back to the angel, “Sir, you know.” “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:13-14). Here’s the key to the citizenship of the saints! They’re clothed in pure robes, washed white in the blood of the Lamb! Jesus’ sacrificial blood, poured out on the cross, has cleansed and forgiven each of us, washing our sins and making them white like wool. Without this forgiveness, we cannot enter the New Jerusalem, as our reading says, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” But the Lord says: “Come now, let us reason together…though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Is 1:18).

Our citizenship has been bought with the blood of the Lamb. And we wear His clean robe of innocence, the wedding garments that He gives to all who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church (Matt. 22:11-12). Pastor Fricke and I wear these white robes, or albs as we serve in worship as a reminder to each one of you, that believers are clothed in the clean robe of Jesus’ innocence. Washed in the blood of the Lamb, who makes all things new from His throne. In Madagascar, I visited a remote village, a Lutheran community, where all the believers wore a white robe or covering, to remind them of Christ’s righteousness that they wear, by virtue of their baptism into Jesus. His perfect innocence is ours by faith.

This brings us to the second mark of the saints’ citizenship. They had the name of God on their foreheads, that they could see God’s face and stand in His presence. They were sealed with the name of God and the Lamb, and the name of the city of God, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven (Rev. 3:12). How’ve believers been sealed with the name of God on their forehead? In baptism we were baptized into the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 2 Corinthians describes how we’re anointed by God, sealed, and given His Holy Spirit as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:21-22). Ephesians speaks about us hearing the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and that those who believe in Him are sealed with the promised Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). Peter addressed the Pentecost crowd in Acts, telling them if they repented and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, they’d receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). All this confirms that we’re sealed with God’s name by believing and being baptized into Jesus’ name. In the sanctified, living waters that pour from God’s throne of grace, He makes all things new. Renewing, washing, cleansing by the living waters and by His precious blood, we’re sealed, anointed, baptized into His name. Forgiven and holy. Holy ones, that’s what ‘saints’ means—holy not by our works, but by His cleansing and His sacrifice.

Made a new creation in Christ Jesus, new to stand in His Kingdom, we identify a final parallel from the new heavens and earth, to the first creation. The Tree of Life, from which humanity was banished in the Garden of Eden, is restored to the saints. Here at the side of the flowing river of life, is the Tree of Life, bearing 12 crops of fruit for each month, with leaves for the healing of the nations. And the curse, the sin and death that drove Adam and Eve from the garden and the Tree of Life—the cherubim with a flaming sword guarding it—this is removed in the new heavens and new earth. Now we have full access to the Tree of Life, and God’s healing. Our access to this Tree of Life once again comes from the One who makes all things new from His throne—the Lamb who was slain on the tree of the cross (Rev. 5:6). Through that cursed tree, Jesus’ death opened to us the Tree of Life. Restoring what was lost in the garden—we’re once again able to stand and walk in the presence of God. Released from sin, no longer separated, lonely, or alienated from God, we shall see Him face to face.

Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame, flows life eternal in His name;
For all who trust and will believe, Salvation’s living fruit receive.
And of this fruit so pure and sweet, the Lord invites the world to eat,
To find within this cross of wood, the tree of life with ev’ry good. (LSB 561)

Image upon image has been layered on this wonderful vision of God and the Lamb on the throne, who are at the same time the source of light for all of heaven, the source of the river of the water of life, they’re the Temple of the New Jerusalem. The Lamb who appears as one who once was slain on the Tree of the Cross becomes our access to the Tree of Life; the one whose blood washes our heavenly robes, and marks His name on our foreheads. Let’s rejoice and sing of that eternal hope, as we gaze into eternity to see our God, who makes all things new for all His saints! Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46 for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost. "All the Law and the Prophets hang on Love."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is from Matthew 22, an interchange between the Pharisees and Jesus, where they attempt to “stump” Him with a difficult question. He answers wisely and then turns the tables on them, asking a question that stumps them. In this dialogue, we will see how the two great commandments to love are fulfilled. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

At the start of today’s lesson, the Pharisees are impressed that Jesus had just silenced their theological adversaries the Sadducees. Jesus had just refuted them on the matter of the resurrection from the dead—something that they didn’t believe in, but He convincingly established. Now the Pharisees decide to test their luck in “stumping” Jesus, thinking that they’ve got a winner. An expert in the law, who would have been a well-studied scribe, throws this question at Jesus: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” His question already reflects something of his character as a Pharisee, as they had lengthy disputes over which commandments were the most important, which were higher than the others, and how many commandments there were. Often Jesus found fault with the questions asked of Him, and either redirected them or turned the questions on their head. But here Jesus validates the question by giving a straightforward answer, nonetheless one which astonished the Jews for its wisdom. This question got to the heart of the matter, even if the expert in the law was intending to test Jesus by trapping Him in His words.

Rather than choosing a specific commandment as most important, Jesus instead summarizes all of the 10 Commandments into two statements. He quotes from Deuteronomy 6:5 as the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Jesus places this commandment as the first and greatest of the commandments—a point that the Pharisees surely couldn’t disagree. The second commandment like it, He quotes from Leviticus 19:18, in today’s Old Testament reading. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For as often as people malign the Old Testament, we might be surprised to find both of these commands first there, and then on Jesus’ lips. Jesus had basically just summarized the 10 Commandments into what we often call the “Two Tables of the Law.”

The first table of the Law is the commandments regarding God. Typically numbered the first three, they are: “You shall have no other gods before me; You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God; and Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” These commands relate to the sole worship of God alone, excluding all idolatry and graven images; the proper use of God’s holy name; and the proper way to fear and love God in worship. All of these three commands and every other command regarding God is summed up in that first and greatest commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” It’s absolute and unconditional love of God, in heart, soul, and mind. No aspect of our existence can be withheld or exempted from loving God. This is the first table of the Law.

The second table of the Law is the commandments regarding your neighbor. Typically numbered four through ten, they are: “Honor your father and mother; You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not bear false testimony against your neighbor; You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” While the first table concerns our relationship in the vertical dimension toward God, the second table governs our relationships in the horizontal dimension towards our fellow human beings. Obedience to parents and authorities, safeguarding the life and health of our neighbor, safeguarding the sexual purity of our neighbor and the marriage relationship, safeguarding our neighbor’s property, reputation, and even safeguarding against greed that would tempt us to plot to get our neighbor’s inheritance or possessions. These are perfectly summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love for our neighbor would not transgress any of these commands. This is the second table of the Law.

We can’t be sure how the ten commandments were split on the two stone tablets God gave to Moses, but it’s helpful to think of the one tablet containing the first table of the law—commandments about God, and the second tablet containing the second table of the law—commandments about our neighbor. For all of our life is contained and summed up in these two dimensions—vertically toward God, and horizontally toward each other. But Jesus takes this truth further than just being the greatest commandment in the Law—He goes on to say that “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Law and Prophets was a common shorthand way to refer to what we now call the Old Testament. The Law is the first five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. The Prophets represent the rest of the books of the Old Testament. Perhaps we don’t recognize the magnitude of this statement: that the whole teaching and content of the Law and Prophets depends on these two commandments of love—to Love God and Love your neighbor. Everything taught from Moses to Malachi, from the Psalms of David to the exalted prophecies of Isaiah, is expressed in these two commandments of Love. All of the Law and the Prophets hang on Love.

So now for a moment of self-examination. How do we measure up to these commands? Have we loved the Lord with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind? Have we loved our neighbor as ourselves? First consider what it means to love God with all our heart. If we love Him with all our heart, we should willingly and without reservation do everything that He commands. Such a person can pray: “O God, what you will, is my will; whether it be to die, live, be poor, be sick, saved, or condemned—I will suffer it all gladly, for I love you with my whole heart”. If someone says they love another with all their heart, they mean that they give their love unreservedly and without condition—that no matter what they would still love them. Second, consider what it means to love God with all our soul. “This is to love with one’s whole, inmost heart, spirit, and one’s whole life.” That our whole life is committed to joyful and devoted love to God. Such a person could pray, “My life is in your hands,” or even “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Such a person would lay down their life for the one they loved. Third, consider what it means to love God with all our mind. This is to surrender ourselves to God with our whole mind, being “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” It’s to have the wisdom of knowing that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and to love and praise them even when we don’t understand. To consciously and with full agreement love and believe in God. Such a person would be filled with the wisdom and understanding that begins with the fear of the Lord.

I think if we honestly examine ourselves, none of us will be able to claim that we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind. Our sinful life doesn’t reflect an ongoing agreement to and obedience of God’s will. We don’t love God with all our soul, as we divide our attention and devotion to Him with other pleasures, other ideas, and most of all a greater love of self. And our mind isn’t clearly and intently focused on God, but we doubt, get distracted from truth, or use our mind to excuse or defend our sin. No, we don’t love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

But what about loving our neighbor as ourselves? The Old Testament reading gives some practical examples of what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. We shouldn’t pervert justice or show favoritism and partiality, based on whether someone is rich or poor. We must not play favorites in our business affairs, our participation in civil service, or even in our social relationships—we’re to exercise fairness in all things. We’re not to spread slander or gossip. Such an easy thing! It hardly crosses our minds how often we’re gossiping. “Did you hear what she said?” “I heard that…” “Can you believe what he was telling me about…” “That woman is such a…” “That is so typical of him…” This is not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Do we guard our neighbor’s life, and make sure not to endanger it in any way? We’re not even to harbor hatred or resentment against a person. We’re to rebuke our neighbor frankly if they’re caught in obvious sin, so that we don’t share in their guilt. If we stand idly by while our neighbor is being harmed, we’re guilty of neglecting to protect their life. Finally, we must not seek revenge or hold grudges.

How are we measuring up so far? Are we all convinced that we have kept the simple but great commandments to Love God and Love our neighbor as ourselves? Obviously not. And now we’re in a predicament. We stand judged as guilty before the Law, having failed in keeping the greatest commandments, that sum up all of God’s Old Testament teaching. The Law and the Prophets cannot hang or depend on us. Rather we find ourselves hung by the Law. And as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). We find ourselves just as much silenced by Jesus’ words as the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Law of God is having its proper effect on us, as the book of Romans declares: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20). The Law stops our mouth and holds us accountable to God—because by works of the law we can’t be justified before God. So we’re left silenced—muzzled by the Law, as it brings us knowledge of our sin.

Once silenced by the Law, we can receive the saving message of the Gospel. It’s Jesus who turns the attention of both the Pharisees and us to the Christ, the Son of David. For in Him is the resolution of our predicament. Jesus stumps the Pharisees with His own questions about who the Christ is, and why David, the Great King of the Golden Age of Israel, would address the Christ, one of his descendants, as Lord. Why would a king, the highest earthly ruler, address any of his descendants—like a great grandson or great-great grandson, etc—with the honorific title of Lord? What Jesus exposed with His question was that they were perfectly willing to accept the promised Christ’s humanity as a Son of David, but were unwilling to realize His divinity. They could not accept Jesus as the Christ who is both divine and human.

Yet Jesus stood among them, as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament. They knew to expect the Christ, foretold in the Old Testament. But they didn’t realize that He would be the one to perfectly live according to God’s Law. They didn’t realize that here standing among them was the solution to their predicament of the Law—theirs and our failure to Love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. All the Law and the Prophets hang on Love. And Jesus the Christ, was the one and only person to walk that way of love perfectly and completely.

He alone, among mankind, loved God with all His heart, unreservedly giving Himself to the Father’s will, no matter what His circumstances. He showed this unconditional commitment to the Father’s will when He prayed in the Garden, “Father, not my will but your will be done.” He alone loved God with all His soul, with a joyful love and devotion to God that led Him to sacrifice His own life for the very one’s He loved: “Greater love has no man than this, that He lay down His life for His friend.” Jesus laid down His life for you and I at the cross. And He loved God with all His soul, as He spoke those dying words, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Entrusting His soul to the one He loved, even at the moment of greatest forsakenness at the cross, Jesus showed His ultimate and perfect love of God. He alone among mankind loved God with all His mind, delighting in the truth of God’s Word and commandments. He delighted in the wisdom of God rather than men, showing no favoritism or partiality toward men. He grew in knowledge and stature before the Lord, because He feared and loved God with all His mind, which is the beginning of all wisdom. His perfect walk in love extended out to His neighbor in every circumstance. Considering others more important than Himself, He humbled Himself to become a servant to others—healing the sick, comforting the distressed and guilt-ridden, washing the feet of His disciples.

This perfect love and obedience of Jesus to the greatest of the commandments, led Him to the cross, where He laid down His perfect life for humanity. Led by God’s plan and purpose, step-by-step fulfilling the prophecies spoken of the Christ in the Old Testament, He was led to that gory tree. There He hung upon that tree, becoming accursed under the Law we failed to keep. There He hung on the tree, the One promised by the Prophets. To us who are broken and silenced beneath the Law, Jesus was born under that same Law, so that He could live and obey it perfectly. And as He hung on that tree, the heavy weight of the Law and the Prophets hung on Him. For all the Law and the Prophets hang on Love. He was and is and ever shall be that perfect Love. For God is Love. And in His hanging, dying, bleeding death, the Law and Prophets were finally fulfilled. The only one on whom all the Law and Prophets could depend. He is the solution to our predicament. By fulfilling the Law and Prophets in our place, God’s will was perfectly satisfied, for you. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Living a Life of Self-Examination

What ought the spiritual life of the Christian be like? Is this a question we ever consider? Perhaps this question isn’t even on our “radar map.” We might take for granted that the Christian life basically consists in attending church every Sunday and the occasional potluck . Yet you’ve doubtless heard in at least one Sunday sermon that we cannot be Christians just on Sunday morning, but 24 hours, 7 days a week. In other words, coming to church on Sunday isn’t about “putting on a face,” and then returning during the week to a life that is “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Practicing Christianity is not a “one hour a week exercise.” This would be the very definition of hypocrisy—to be hiding behind a pious mask, while our actions do not match our words (see the context of Galatians 2).

Perhaps we all should be struck cold by the thought that our lives rarely measure up to the standard of our own words or our own commitments—let alone the perfect and unchangeable standard of God’s Ten Commandments. How can we escape such a charge that we too are hypocrites? One way is to double our efforts to do well, and maintain that pious image. But for any who have attempted this, they will soon discover that it produces either self-righteousness (a “holier than thou”) attitude—or, just as likely, a despair that realizes this is only a game that furthers the self-deception. If no one else can tell that our words and pious image are but a mask for the guilt and darkness hidden within—we still know it full well. And the mental/emotional exhaustion of maintaining such a mask can lead a person to despair of all hope. “Who am I kidding?” “Why does it seem so easy for everyone else?” “What would people think of me if they really knew my heart?”

So again, how do we escape the charge that we too are hypocrites? St. John answers, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). To say we have not sinned is self-deception, and worse—makes God out to be a liar. So the solution to the dilemma is not to deny that we are hypocrites, or to deny that we have continually fallen short of the standard of God’s law—rather the solution is to confess our sinfulness. To confess is to speak back to God what is true about ourselves. Thus we affirm that God is true in calling us to account for our sin, and that there is no one who is righteous and never sins (Eccles. 7:20). Or as Jesus said, our heart itself is the source of “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Rather than being an “inner source of goodness,” our heart is the fountain from which flows the evil thoughts that give rise to evil actions.

So what is the consequence of confessing our sins? First of all, the mask comes down—the pious fa├žade is removed, and we face the fact of our sinfulness before God. Then, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We give up the exhausting and self-deceiving game of pretending our innocence, and face God’s mercy as a completely undeserved gift. We experience the washing over of God’s forgiveness, cleansing our deepest stain, freeing our conscience from an aging and increasingly heavy burden of guilt. Freeing us to confess even our failures—that we are in this life simultaneously both saint and sinner (Rom. 7).

Back to the original question of “What ought the spiritual life of the Christian be like?,” we find that it ought to be a daily life of self-examination. And by that I mean just what Martin Luther said in the first of his famous 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance and confession aren’t one-time acts, an infrequent practice, or even a weekly ritual to be carried out only on Sunday morning. Our entire life is to be one of repentance. Day by day we should examine our lives and confess our sin. The Small Catechism asks “What sins should we confess?” and gives this answer: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.” It goes on to give a useful starting point for how we might learn a daily life of self-examination: “Which [sins] are these?” “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

To this list we could add our own questions—but the important thing is that this gets at a fundamental part of our Christian life that is too often overlooked. Simply, that is to daily examine our sins and confess them to God, and want to do better. Having confessed our sins, we do not hide our sins behind a mask, but have the full confidence that we have been forgiven and cleansed, and that our sins are separated from us farther than the east is from the west! (Ps. 103:12) The Christian life of self-examination leads to only one solution for our guilt: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! In Christ, there is no condemnation for us (Rom. 8:1).

Friday, October 03, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-43, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. "The Son's Inheritance"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon today is based on the Gospel reading, Matthew 21, the parable about the vineyard. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading for today are almost perfectly matched together, as you may have noticed both speak of a master who planted a vineyard. They talk about the care and attention the master gave in establishing and preparing His vineyard to bear good fruit. He cleared the land of stones, planted the vineyard in fertile soil, dug a winepress, built a watchtower to guard it, placed a hedge or wall around it to protect it, and entrusted it to the care of tenants to work it.

The Isaiah passage tells us what the vineyard is. “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of His delight” (Isa 5:7). So the vineyard represents God’s chosen people Israel, an elect nation, and how He established them by planting them in the land of Israel. He hedged a wall of protection around them, put them in a rich land, and prepared everything for them to flourish and bear much fruit. God questions, “What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” He had every reason to expect a good harvest of fruit. This shows God’s gracious generosity in providing for His people, even though they had done nothing to deserve it. He was watching out for their interest, and shielding them from harm. In the parable, the landowner goes away on a journey, while His tenants are entrusted with the land. Like a sharecropping agreement, the landowner expected a share of the crop at harvest time. So He sent His servants to collect.

At this point the parable becomes quite surprising. First the landowner sends out a series of servants to collect the share of the crop, and one is beaten, another is killed, and the tenants stone the third. Amazingly, He continues to send even more servants than before, but they are all treated the same way. What could this mean? God sent numerous prophets to Israel to warn them of their sin, to turn them back from the threat of punishment for their disobedience. It was God’s mercy and patience that kept giving them yet another chance, to delay their punishment yet one more time, as prophet after prophet came to turn them back to God. In the history of Israel, these words were written: “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:15-16). So the Israelites had a record of ignoring and mistreating their prophets, just as the tenants abused and killed the master’s servants. A few years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the New Testament evangelist Stephen addressed the men of Israel about this very subject. He said, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered” (Acts 7:52)

Of course Jesus is the Righteous One whom the prophets foretold, and who is the Son of the landowner in the parable. Looking back at the parable, it continues to astonish. Not only did God, the landowner, repeatedly send His servants the prophets to Israel. But after they had all been mistreated, He then sent them Jesus, His Son, reasoning that surely “They will respect my Son.” We hear this with disbelief. What could He be thinking? Doesn’t He know what will happen to Him? But what is equally astonishing, is that the Son could ever come to His Father’s vineyard and not be received! How could the Son of the master, who had so carefully planted and prepared this vineyard, and entrusted it to tenants, now be so violently rejected? What sort of alienation or divorce must have happened between the tenants and the master, that they could turn so violently against Him? It is the alienation of sin, our human rebellion against God, that so blinds our eyes from recognizing the One who comes for our help and for our good, and sees Him instead as an enemy. Of all the kindness that the master had shown, and all the patience and even bearing with their abuse of His servants, when the Son came to them, He was rejected and killed. Let us learn not to turn away from the One who comes for our help and our good.

Truly did John write of Him: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13). Jesus, who made all things, came to His own people, and they didn’t receive Him. He came for their good, but they viewed Him as an enemy and killed Him. The parable says the tenants plotted against the Son, saying “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” I’ve always puzzled over this part of the parable. It’s completely illogical that they could have thought to gain the inheritance by murdering the Son and heir. How could they think the landowner would give them the property if they murdered His Son?

Recently I read a note in my study Bible that explained that according to Jewish law, if no heir came forward to claim a piece of property, then it was declared ownerless, and others could claim it. In the parable, they must have assumed that the owner was dead, and that was the reason the Son had appeared—in order to claim His property. So greedy thoughts of gaining the Son’s inheritance arose in their heads. And it turned ugly, as they threw the Son out of the vineyard, and killed Him. Again Jesus’ listeners did not realize He was now speaking about how He Himself would be taken out of Jerusalem and crucified, yet another prophet persecuted and put to death—but this One more than a prophet—He was the Son of God. They thought they could seize the inheritance, take it for themselves.

Relate this to how the Jews thought they could sacrifice Jesus in order to try to keep the “inheritance” of the land of Israel. The ruling council of the Jews, called the Sanhedrin, feared that the Romans, who ruled them, would take everything away from them, if everyone started following Jesus. Recorded in John, the Sanhedrin convened a conspiratorial meeting, and said: “What are we accomplishing? Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life” (John 11:46b-53).

Unwittingly, they fulfilled the words of Jesus’ parable. They tried to secure the inheritance for themselves by killing Jesus, God’s Son. And since the listeners were still unaware that this was being spoken about them, Jesus asked them what they thought would happen when the master of the vineyard came Himself, after they had killed His Son. Standing in someone else’s shoes actually made it easier for them to see the injustice of the situation. They quickly pronounced a just verdict—that the master would put those wretches to a wretched end, and give the vineyard to others who would give Him His share of the fruit in the time of harvest. So it was that the guilty pronounced their own just verdict, and proposed a solution—that the inheritance be given to others. “They killed Him that they might possess the inheritance; and because they killed Him, they lost it”.

And neither did they count on the Son rising from the dead! No one who plots to kill expects their enemy to rise to life again! And so they would face their own verdict. And they who could not be heirs by earning it or by seizing it, would give way to those who must become heirs by grace. To the Gentiles, to us(!) the kingdom of God was opened! To we who had no share in the inheritance, who were not even tenants in the vineyard—to us the promises would be given—for all who receive and believe in the Son of God. We have become heirs of grace, inheriting the kingdom of God, and being joined to Jesus, the Living Vine, through whom we bear the fruits of the kingdom. We are branches of that Living Vine, bearing fruit to be given to the Lord in due time. That fruit is the fruit of repentance, the mark of being joined to Jesus, the Vine, and having His love transform us. The kind of love, that so far exceeds our own, that drove God to sacrifice all to bring back the lost.

God’s plan in sending His Son to the vineyard seemed to make no sense, with a certain sentence of death awaiting any prophet who came to call Israel to repentance. But only after we’ve seen Jesus betrayed to the cross, suffering, dying for our sin; only after we’ve seen Him praying for the forgiveness of those who “know not what they do”; only after His rising from the dead on the third day—can we begin to see God’s purpose in this. Only God saw that Jesus’ death would seal and deliver His inheritance for us, both Jew and Gentile. Jesus, God’s Son, had an inheritance to bring, and His death put His “will” so to speak, into effect. And He didn’t give it to those who earned it, for none were worthy, and He was rejected by His own people. But through His death and resurrection, He willed His inheritance to all who receive Him by faith, both Jew and Gentile alike.

Scripture reminds us to be thankful that we have been grafted into the Living Vine, which is Jesus, but not to become arrogant or proud toward the Jews who were broken off (Rom 11). God still has power to bring back even the Jews who reject the Son and are cut out of the inheritance; they can still become heirs of grace by repentance and receiving Christ. And by trusting in Jesus, the rejected Son, they are grafted back into that Living Vine. Since through Jesus’ rejection we are welcomed into the vineyard as “tenants” and heirs, we lay hold of Jesus’ merciful forgiveness that is extended to us by faith. By faith in Jesus, the Son, we receive the Son’s inheritance undeservedly. For we who receive the Son, who believe in His name, have been given the power to become children of God, and co-heirs to His inheritance. So let us work with joy in His vineyard, until the time of harvest. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Church, Truth, and Relevance

“The church, if she is to remain the church, must remain out of step with common culture and its morality…A church that alters the Christian message in order to attract people soon blends in with her surroundings and is no longer distinguishable from the world.”—Dr. David Scaer

A pressing question that faces the church of every generation since Christ is how to reach people around us with the Gospel, in an ever-changing world. While at different points in history the morality of culture has been either closer to or further from the Bible, the church can never really be “in step” with the culture around us. In other words, our morals cannot conform to the world, or else we would become indistinguishable from the world. Jesus declares the distinctiveness of the church in His prayer for believers: “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:14-19)

Paul adds a similar thought in Romans 12:2 where he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” John writes: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). All of these emphasize that the identity of the church is apart from the world, and that conformity to the world is to forsake the truth and the Father’s love. So the church will perpetually be “out of step” with common culture and its morality. No matter how far the pendulum of culture swings in one direction or another, our foundation is what Jesus said: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Whether it’s the teachings of the faith concerning God and Jesus’ life and work of salvation, or whether we are speaking of the ethics we are called to live by in the 10 Commandments, God’s Word is the Truth. Truth is not something subjectively defined by each person or by different times, cultures, or philosophies. Truth comes down from above—revealed by God in His spoken and written Word—the Bible, and in the Word Incarnate—Jesus Christ (John 1:1). Ultimate Truth doesn’t originate from us, it originates from God.

So “relevance” can never mean that the church takes on the appearance or values of the world. The question of how the church can continue to reach out with the message of the Gospel to a world that never stays the same is not answered by blending in, accommodating, or conforming to the world by somehow altering our message or our morals. A Christian made the wise observation that “the church that is seeking to be relevant is already irrelevant.” That is to say, that if the church is trying to be relevant by constantly changing its message and moral view to be “cutting edge,” it has conceded that the church is already “irrelevant.” Similarly, an early Christian, Irenaeus said: “What doctor, when wishing to cure a sick man, would act in accordance with the desires of the patient, and not in accordance with the requirements of medicine?...How, then, are the sick to be made strong? And how are sinners to repent?” By contrast, when the church recognizes and grasps the True and abiding relevance of God’s Word, that does not change, it sees that God’s Word is timely and relevant for every time and place and culture. The relevance of the church is found in the same Word of God that sanctifies us and keeps us in the truth. This Word runs counter to the culture and to its morality, but it is the eternally relevant cure, that witnesses to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection, for a world shattered and corrupted by sin. The Word that outlasts all fads or fashions, revolutions or movements. As Scripture says, “All flesh is as grass, And all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, And its flower falls away, But the word of the Lord endures forever.” (1 Pet 1:24-25). Amen!

Sermon on Matthew 21:28-32 for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Which one did the Father's will?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, from Matthew 21. Today Jesus tells a simple parable to show who it is that does the will of His Father, and who doesn’t. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In this parable of two sons, one says “I will not!”, and the other says “I will, Lord!” to their father’s will. Yet the unwilling son later regretted it, and went back to do his father’s will. The second son, who politely agreed to do his father’s will, never ended up doing it. Both started by saying one thing, and ended up doing the opposite. Their first intentions didn’t match with their final actions. Which son will you prove to be?

Jesus’ parable aimed to upset the comfortable complacency of the religious people of His day. They were like the son that said “I will!”, but never did the father’s will. The Pharisees, the priests, scribes, teachers of the law—they were quite self-assured of their status in God’s eyes. They were squeaky clean, pious and faithful in their religious duties. Outwardly they had every appearance of being good, moral people. If anyone was headed for heaven, surely it was them. What could possibly have excluded them? Their commitment to God seemed obvious.

In contrast, there were those who clearly didn’t seek the Father’s will. Criminals, outcasts, swindlers, thieves. The tax collectors who made a living skimming off the top. The prostitutes who skimmed a living off the bottom. The easiest vices: greed and lust, were a steady source of income. Neither were welcome among the upright Jews, and both had a stigma to carry around with them. These two groups were representative of the people in society who were clearly sinners, those who walked on the way of guilt. Of course there were other people who fell into this group besides just tax collectors and prostitutes, but the point was that nobody had these people marked as potential candidates for heaven. From their plainly immoral lives, it was obvious where they were headed.

Or was it so obvious? Jesus turned their perceptions upside-down. They thought it was clear who was going to heaven, and who wasn’t. But the truth was that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering heaven ahead of the rest. It wasn’t that God approved of their lifestyle. It was because they had godly sorrow or grief over their sin, and believed in Jesus for their forgiveness. Not like the Pharisees, who put on a good outward show, but in their hearts were smug and complacent, not trusting in God but in themselves.

In our own minds we can quickly identify similar groups of people. Any of us could be eligible to fit the bill for those “religious types.” We show up at church regularly, if not every Sunday, we participate in all sorts of church activities and committees. We lead decent lives, avoid trouble, and try to be good citizens. All good things in themselves. But this makes us “religious types” particularly susceptible to a sort of spiritual pride or complacency, that makes us think we’ve earned our good status before God. But it’s not as though staying away from church is going to bring you any closer to God either. For some the self-righteousness is about how sterling our “record” is. For others it’s that we think we’ve stayed on the margins enough so that we’d never be mistaken for one of those “zealots” or “Bible-thumpers,” even though we still believe it all. Others have “paid their dues,” “put in their time,” or are just content to be listed in the church records, but the church has no relevance to their daily life, righteous or not.

If it’s easy for us to identify others, and even ourselves as having tendencies toward the Pharisees, it should also be easy to identify the groups we think of today like the “tax collectors and prostitutes.” While the reputation of tax collectors has improved quite a bit over the millennia, prostitutes still hold the same low place in society. But we don’t even need to go to these two representative groups for an example. We form those categories in our head without even being asked to. They’re the people we seem to think don’t belong in church. Someone we wouldn’t want sitting next to us. Or someone who would never “darken the door” of the church in the first place. People on the street, the poor, the criminals, people with a bad reputation. People struggling with sexual temptations, greed, or addictions. Yes, people. People that we have unconsciously characterized by their actions, as if to assume that we’re better, by virtue of not participating in obvious sins. People that’ve made it apparent that they set their will against God, and wouldn’t obey Him.

But again, Jesus turns our perceptions on their head, as He reminds us that many of these people will be going into the kingdom of God ahead of those who were apparently committed to the church all along. Because, as in the parable, the first son was ultimately the one who did the will of his father, even though he refused at first. The first son is those who are openly disobedient. The second son was prepared to do the will of the father, but didn’t. His disobedience wasn’t obvious until later. So this begs an important question: what is the will of the father—our Heavenly Father? Fortunately Jesus provides several direct statements throughout the Gospels that tell us what the Father’s will is and isn’t. It’s not the will of the Father that any of the little ones perish (Matthew 18:14). It was the will of the Father that Jesus go through the sufferings and death of the cross—remember the prayer Jesus prayed on the Mount of Olives before His arrest? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

And Jesus very directly identified the Father’s will in John 6:38-40, where He said: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” The Father’s will is that no one would be lost from those He had given to Jesus, and that everyone would see and believe in Jesus, His Son, so that they would have eternal life. He talks about the Father’s will more in terms of believing in Him and having eternal life, than in doing something. And this dovetails with what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the two sons, where he shows the Pharisees and teachers of the law who think they have been doing the Father’s will all along, that they really have not been. Because they do not believe. The fact that they had not done the will of the Father was because they had rejected John the Baptist’s message, pointing to the way of righteousness—which is Jesus Christ. All of the doing “good works” and pious shows of holiness didn’t count at all toward doing the will of the Father.

The reason that blatant sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes were going ahead of them (and possibly us!) into the kingdom of heaven, was because they repented and believed. Doing the will of the Father, as they had, was about turning away from their sins and believing in Jesus, the way of righteousness—the Way, the Truth, the Life. And so it shall be today also! There will be many people who have led lives that were full of open sinning, whose constant refrain was “I will not” toward God, but as the Holy Spirit works faith in Jesus Christ in their hearts, they will have regretted the life they led, and turn to Jesus in faith for His forgiveness.

It’s interesting that the word translated “repent” here, is not the word normally used for repentance, which means “turning or changing your heart and mind.” Rather, here in the parable Jesus uses a word that means to regret or feel grief about something. The first son in the parable later regretted his decision to disobey the father. The Pharisees and teachers of the law that Jesus addressed didn’t, however, have such a feeling of regret or grief about their sinfulness, or about their disobedience to the father. Of course we know that feeling remorse or grief doesn’t always amount to repentance. Judas felt such a great remorse over betraying an innocent man, that he hung himself. But his remorse never led to repentance, and the faith that his sins could be forgiven. Rather his remorse turned to despair and hopelessness. One can feel remorse for getting caught, for the trouble something brings on yourself, or just overwhelming guilt, but it’s not the same as repentance unless you also believe.

In 2 Corinthians 7:10, St. Paul contrasts “godly grief” and “worldly grief.” He says, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Grief for grief’s sake is no good, but if it leads to repentance it’s godly grief. Worldly grief, on the other hand, works death. Godly grief works repentance for salvation, without regrets. Why is it that godly grief leaves us with no regrets? It brings sincere repentance from our sin, and the desire to turn from it. Godly grief over sin is followed by the faith that believes that sins are forgiven. And in the forgiveness of sins, there are no regrets, for Jesus has washed our guilt away, and suffered our punishment in our place on the cross. Worldly grief has no solution, it leads to despair and ultimately death. It’s remorse without hope. The tax collectors and prostitutes went on to heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders of the law because they had godly grief over their sin; repented and believed.

So which son are we? Are we the son who felt genuine remorse over his disobedience? Are we like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who upon hearing about the way of righteousness, felt a godly grief over sin, and turned away in repentance? Do we lead a life of self-examination, seeing our sinfulness daily, in the light of God’s law? Or are we the son who politely agreed to do his father’s will, but neglected to follow through? Are we like the Pharisees and teachers of the law—the typical “religious types,” and convinced ourselves that we’ve never done anything seriously wrong, and so we must already be in God’s good graces? But will we be shocked to find tax collectors and prostitutes proceeding into heaven ahead of us? The call of Jesus in this parable is a simple one: repent of your sins and believe.

John the Baptist is briefly mentioned in this parable as showing the way of righteousness. And finding that “way of righteousness,” to do the will of the Father, was not about how sterling our record is; it’s not about having a perfect life or church attendance record; it’s not about having enough people in this world who can vouch for your good reputation. None of that matters. The way of righteousness isn’t about our doing, but our believing. Jesus is the Way of Righteousness, because He is the only path to innocence before God. Only through the Perfect Life, sufferings and death of Jesus on the cross, can we be given the righteousness or innocence that suffices before God. He is the Way of Righteousness because it’s His righteousness, His innocence that becomes ours by faith. Only on this path, could sinners such as you and me, could sinners such as tax collectors and prostitutes, any and every repentant sinner, find righteousness before God. We who walked the way of guilt, have been shown the way of righteousness. It’s the Father’s will that we should believe in this Way, and have eternal life in His name. To God alone be all the Glory, forever and ever. Amen!

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.