Monday, September 30, 2013

Sermon on Revelation 12:7-12, for the Feast of St. Michael and all angels, "Angels: Ministering Servants"

Sermon Outline:
1.      C.S. Lewis: two equal and opposite errors that can occur with regard to demons (fallen angels)--  1) disbelieving in their existence or 2) to believe, but have an unhealthy fascination. They are happy with either error--the first allows them to do their work unnoticed--the second because our focus lands on them, instead of God. Lewis referred to demons, but I think we could easily borrow his point to talk about the good angels as well. Same two easy errors: 1) disbelieve or 2) excessive fascination. On the one hand we would be ignorant of their protection or duty. But especially with the 2nd, how do we teach about them, but not lose focus of God, who is of greatest importance? Angels too are conscious of this problem--infrequent appearances in Bible--have the effect of frightening humans because of their brilliant shining appearance--quick to add in many cases “do not fear!” or “Don’t be afraid!” When humans fall down to worship them, like John did in awe, in the book of Revelation, they always correct the human and redirect their praise back to God. God alone rightly receives our worship, and the angels are quick to point the spotlight away from them and back to God. In some ways its good then that we don’t know too much, so that we don’t become obsessed--but we’ll review some of what we do know.
2.      Sometimes the angels are described figuratively like the stars in the heavens, as in Job 38, where the creation of the world is being described poetically, and it talks about how “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”--referring to the angels celebrating God’s creation. The morning star (Venus, for example) can be brilliant in its light--the brightest in the night sky after the moon--but it is never long before its brightness is extinguished by the greater light of the sun. So also the angels in their brilliance often stunned mere men--but they always give way to the infinitely greater brilliance of God’s Son, who is the “sun of righteousness” who rises to the full height of the sky, His glory extinguishes or outshines all their lesser splendor. Isaiah 60: “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” We are drawn to the brightness and glory of Christ, not that of the angels.
3.      OT reading even says the wise, and those who turn many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever and ever. Great honor, and yet our light is always inferior to the brilliance and infinitely surpassing light and glory of Christ.
4.      The word “angel” has come to almost exclusively to mean in our minds, the created, immortal spirits that we readily think of. But the word in both OT & NT is broader and simply means “messenger.” Used of humans, fallen spirits, the heavenly beings that are God’s messengers, and even of the Son of God. “Angel” or “messenger” simply describes an office or duties. The Bible defines these heavenly beings as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (Heb. 1:14). That’s what they do.
5.      Can be carrying good news, as they often do: “Fear not!” but also can be carrying warnings or messages of judgment, as the angel who warned the prophet Balaam about his “fool’s errand” of cursing the Israelites. Especially in the New Testament they attend to and highlight major events along the way with Christ accomplishing salvation--i.e. conception, birth, temptation, Garden of Gethsemane, resurrection, ascension, etc. Their work is closely tied to the work of salvation. They are not the ones doing the saving--that is Christ’s work alone-- remember how He forsook the help of angels to rescue Him from arrest and trial? But 1 Peter 1 tells us that concerning God’s work of salvation, not only the prophets of old, but even the angels as well, as God’s messengers “longed to look” into these things. They were eager to witness and discover how God’s of salvation would unfold. I believe therefore it was no artificial display of joy, but genuine thrill and exultation when the angels sang out in the heavens, as they announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds—for here was the world’s salvation, born in human flesh as a little child!
6.      Who they are--they are spirits--that is a separate kind of creature from humans. Popular myth: humans become angels when they die--not true! We remain humans on both sides of eternity. Having soul AND body sets humans apart from the angels. Dying and going to heaven doesn’t mean that we become bodiless spirits. Rather, we wait for the resurrection of our bodies on the last day, when  Angels can appear in human form, but have no true body.
7.      Turn to our reading from Revelation: festival of St. Michael and all angels—highlights the work of angels, and the triumph in heaven when Michael and the remaining good angels, who were faithful to the Lord God threw the devil and the angels who rebelled with him, out of heaven. Origin of good and bad angels (demons). Glimpse of the spiritual warfare that is daily going on behind the scenes of our ordinary live. Just peel back the edges a little and peek behind the corners to recognize the spiritual forces at work in this world, and realize that our enemies and our battle are not against flesh and blood—namely fellow humans—but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
8.      But the far greater point to notice, as the Son starts to rise and His glory eclipses all the angels and archangels, is that proclamation, that message of the loud voice in heaven. The proclamation of the devil’s defeat and God’s victory! “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered Him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” The power and victory of the angels and of believers against Satan, that old, evil foe, is the power of Christ and the blood of the Lamb!
9.      Jesus’ blood shed on the cross is the conquering victory over the devil! His innocent blood and death is death’s demise, and His authority is unconquerable. The good news, the good message, is that Jesus’ cross is the victory in the clash between good and evil. The good news is that the devil, the accuser, has been thrown down, and can no longer accuse us of sins. We have been ransomed by the blood of Jesus, the Lamb, and His blood stands in our defense! In Christ, you stand forgiven, innocent of whatever the devil might charge against you—because Jesus has taken those sins and wrongs to His cross and paid the full price for them. The devil has no place in heaven and his accusations fall flat against the cross of Christ, who has answered for them all.
10.  So as we remember the work of the angels, we can give thanks to God for the service of the angels, but may we never lose sight of the fact that they serve for the sake of those who are to inherit the salvation that Jesus Christ has secured and won for us. God sends His angels to guard and protect us, but all salvation, power, glory, and might belongs to God and to the Lamb. To Him be glory forever and ever, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      What are two opposite errors that we can fall into concerning belief in angels and/or demons? How do angels in the Bible turn human attention from themselves back to God? Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9; Matthew 4:10-11; Colossians 2:18.
2.      How are the angels described as having a brilliant splendor to their appearance, but also completely outshined by Jesus Christ? Job 38:4-7; Judges 13:6; Malachi 4:2; Luke 1:78; Isaiah 60:13-, 19-20 (note also that not all appearances of angels to men occur with a terrifying brightness—some appearances are in normal human form; cf. Hebrews 13:2).
3.      The title “angel” is broader in its use (both OT & NT) than what we usually think of as an angelic being. The Old Testament word “malak” simply means messenger, and the New Testament word “angelos” means the same, and can apply both to human, divine, and even impersonal messengers. “Malachi”—the name of the last prophet in the OT canon, means “My Messenger” (malak). 2 Samuel 2:5; Luke 7:24; Malachi 3:1; 2 Corinthians 12:7; cf. Genesis 32:1-2; Luke 2:9ff.
4.      When we refer to angels more narrowly, as God’s “ministering spirits” (Hebrews 1:14), we must recognize that they are a separate order of created beings, apart from humans. Consult the following Bible passages for descriptions/characteristics of angels: Psalm 103:20; 2 Peter 2:11; Luke 20:36; 1 Peter 1:10-12; Daniel 7:10; Psalm 91:11-12; 2 Peter 2:4 (fallen angels).

5.      Revelation 12 recounts the fall of the devil and the evil angels (demons) from heaven, and the spiritual warfare that took place. What was the power by which Michael and the good angels triumphed over Satan and threw them down? Revelation 12:10-11. How is it the security and power of the saints also against the assaults of the devil? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sermon on Luke 16:1-15, for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, "Loss or Gain?"

Sermon Outline:
·         One of Jesus’ most puzzling parables. Dishonest manager fired, makes some last minute shady deals, then is commended? Use unrighteous wealth to make friends?
·         Uncover the meaning: what was the dishonest manager’s ploy, and why did it work? What was it that the master commended? What does Jesus want us to learn from this parable?
·         Characters: rich man & his dishonest manager, community where he hopes to get a job after being fired, and the people who owed the master.
·         Fired for dishonesty and causing loss to the master’s possessions. Told to hand in the financial records. His dilemma: how do I get a job after being fired for dishonesty? Can’t dig, won’t beg. His clever plan: still had the books, people don’t know he’s fired yet; generously reduce all their debts; do it in their handwriting. Pad his “landing” after being thrown out of the master’s house.
·         Now this was a gamble—master had every right to reverse these bogus cancellations. The gamble banked everything on the character of the master. Backfired if the master were Ebenezer Scrooge. Never let him get away with it. If he had reversed all the debt reductions, what would the community and his debtors have thought of the master? A stingy and tightfisted man; whether he deserved it or not. And who would hire the manager then? What made it work? The implied good reputation, mercy, and generosity of the master. Only such a man would allow these cancellations to stand. Why?
·         All along, the master is losing money—which is why he fires the manager. But now, he loses even more, as the debts are all slashed. But what changed? Now for the benefit of the community AND the master’s reputation. Clever: a double gain: community and debtors experience great relief, and joy over their cancellation, while at the same time the master’s good reputation soars, as a generous man. Lets it stand. Sneaky play off his good reputation. Earns the master’s praise—amounts to: “you clever rascal”—but still fires him.
·         Note: big difference between being praised for his dishonesty, and for cleverness. Clever for how well he knew his master, and calculating how this parting loss to the master caused a gain for the community and for the master’s reputation.
·         Like the movie Ocean’s 13, where thieves borrow millions from a casino owner (a bad guy) and promise to repay it, but return the money by donating it to a charity in his name. Privately he’s been tricked out of his money, but publicly he’s been made a hero, and to get his stolen money back from the innocent would ruin the good PR to his reputation. In the parable, the master is good and innocent of any of the schemes of the dishonest manager, but in the end he would still enjoy the high opinion of the forgiven debtors.
·         How does it apply to God and to us? Spiritual lesson? First to realize that this is a parable of contrast—so pay attention to what’s similar and different from God.
·         The dishonest manager is the antithesis of Jesus, the good and faithful steward Son over all God’s house (Heb. 3:6). Both the master and the heavenly Father have a good reputation, and are known as merciful. The dishonest manager takes advantage of that reputation in his final gamble, a gamble that paid off by making friends and helping him get a job later.
·         Jesus Christ, by contrast, was not making any gamble or taking advantage of His Father, but rather acting in full harmony with His Father’s will. Exercised His mercy for the great gain and joy of the community by canceling the debt of sin, and by doing so creates thankfulness and enhances the Father’s good reputation, but through honesty and faithfulness to the merciful Father. Again in contrast to the parable of the dishonest manager, both the Father and the Son shared in assuming great loss to help mankind. God graciously (undeservedly) assumes the cost of all our sin and evil—all our debts—and Jesus died a suffering death for it. This is what His cross was all about. He accepted the punishment and cost of sin as the price of that incredible transaction—His own death for us—that became the ransom delivering us from our debt of sin.
·         We are the community that has been forgiven great debt—and not just a reduction, but total cancellation of our sins! Colossians 2 tells us that God made us alive through Jesus by forgiving our sins and cancelling the record of debt that stood against us, with its legal demands, by nailing it to the cross. For us, dealing with God, it’s no gamble on whether God will forgive our debts—no clenching your teeth and wondering if God will be good enough to forgive you. No, to the humble and repentant, it’s a sure thing! We know His reputation, His promises, and His track record. We have Jesus’ promise of forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit’s guarantee—a down-payment in our hearts. God has the world’s best and only true “debt-forgiveness plan”—the forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ! If we think of it in terms of a transaction, God took great loss upon Himself that we be relieved of our great debt to Him. In His infinite riches, His loss became our great gain.
·         So finally, what’s the lesson for us, and how we use riches? Jesus says, in truly puzzling words: “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” This puzzling little passage is explained well in the quote you find in your bulletin. On earth we all will have different amounts of money, wealth, material possessions. And it will all eventually fail—run out, be lost, taken, etc—and finally, when you die, you can’t take it with you. Question is: how to use it in this life? All for yourself? Or for others and the kingdom of God?
·         First off, be very clear that we cannot buy our way into heaven—no hint of that here, and dozens of other passages can be lined up to show that we can’t buy or earn our way into heaven. But help others with your money & material goods here on earth, and they will be thankful to you in heaven. “The wise way to lay up treasure in heaven is to use one’s money for God here on earth. That will give a cash account there of joyful welcome, not of purchased entrance.”
·         We can help and serve others in the mercy and out of the riches of God our generous master. God has shown us the way to do so in Christ Jesus. God invites us to use the possessions with which He blesses us to the benefit and gain of those in need, and in service of His name. Through honesty and faithfulness with what God has given, and through generosity and open-handedness, we can be faithful stewards of whatever God has given us.
·         God truly has One Servant who has been perfectly faithful over all of God’s house as a Son (Hebrews 3:6). Jesus, was entrusted with much, with the management and care of our souls. He carried out His task faithfully. We can be confident that Jesus faithfully delivers our souls to His eternal kingdom. Jesus was the perfect manager of all God’s house because He poured out God’s generosity and forgiveness and the riches of God to all in need. And to put our trust in Him is no gamble, but it’s a sure thing to count on His mercy and love.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. How does the Bible warn against learning the ways of the world and adopting them? Jeremiah 10:2; Romans 12:2. Was the dishonest manager actually commended for his dishonesty, or something else?
2.      What was so clever about the dishonest manager’s ploy? What did its success depend on? What was the result for him? What good result occurred for the debtors from this clever ploy? For the master? On the other hand, how does the parable show that while his cleverness was praised, his dishonest actions were condemned? See esp. verses 8, 10-13.
3.      What could the master have done (within his rights) after the dishonest manager made those unlawful reductions after he was fired? What about the master’s character made him resist those actions? How is this a picture of our heavenly Father? Mt. 18:21ff. How is Jesus the antithesis of the dishonest manager? Hebrews 3:1-6. What great cost did He and the Father jointly assume? Why did He do it? Who benefitted?
4.      What are the greater things or the “true riches” we might be entrusted with? Luke 12:21; Matt. 6:19-24; 1 Peter 1:3-8. What is so difficult about accepting that what we “have” is not truly ours? Why doesn’t it work to be devoted to both God and money? Why must we be devoted only to God? Luke 16:13.
5.      What will inevitably happen to money and material things? Luke 16:9; James 5:2-3. So in the meantime, what trait of God’s are we to imitate as we use our worldly wealth? Luke 12:31-34

6.      Who is the perfectly faithful Son in whom we put our trust? Heb. 3:6. How well did He manage what was given to Him? John 17, esp. v. 12. In what can we trust for our accumulated debts to God? Col. 2:14

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sermon on 1 Timothy 1:12-17, for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, "Magnify the Grace of God"

Sermon Outline:
·         Paul’s mini-story—blasphemer (evil and foolish words against God), persecutor (tried to destroy the church), and insolent opponent (did great damage to the church through words and violence—opposed the Gospel, arrested, gave approval of martyrdom), acted ignorantly in unbelief. Why the story? Why him? That God might make an example of him for those who were to believe (for us!).
·         What kind of example? What does it usually mean? To strike fear? Create doubt or dread?  No! To create hope—not lose hope! To give comfort and joy to the troubled conscience. See Jesus love on display. You are counted in. Example that shows the greatest sinner was not outside of God’s merciful reach. Example that “Magnifies the Grace of God.”
·         Define “magnify” in context of this theme—not a “magnifying glass”—as though God’s grace and mercy were too small to see, or needed enlarging. Not that we add anything to God’s grace and glory. But to proclaim it’s greatness. To remove any blinders to its full brilliance. To see God’s mercy shine forth full strength, so that we are filled with wonder and awe at His love.
·         Paul’s example magnifies God’s grace because it shows Christ’s unimaginable love and perfect patience. Who but Christ could have endured Paul’s persecutions, and still shown mercy and love to Him? Trustworthy saying: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Shines forth the brilliance of God’s glory in both law and gospel. Law—we’re sinners, I am the foremost (chief). Gospel—Christ Jesus came into the world to save (us) sinners. To let the greatness of God’s mercy shine forth undimmed, we must not reduce the light of either the law or the gospel. We cannot put on blinders to the law or the gospel, or we will obscure and diminish the grace of God.
·         Paul refused to reduce or dilute the law—applied it unsparingly to himself—I’m the worst sinner. Not mock humility, but genuine remorse over the evil he’d perpetrated. Likewise, we cannot build a shelter or shade for our sins, hide them from the light of God’s law—excuse or diminish them—push others lower than us so we seem artificially higher. Exalts himself > humbled. Humbles himself > exalted. Instead, when Law is raised to full height—shows us to be completely undeserving—furthest chasm separating us from God—this is just where Christ rescues us, as He came into the world to save sinners, the lost. Then God’s grace is magnified—our sin is seen in full measure, and God’s grace overflows, abounding, pouring out like a bottomless, welling spring. What could Paul count to his credit, to make himself deserving? Only sin. Nothing. Grace by definition comes undeserved.
·         What about dimming or reducing the light of the Gospel? How can this happen? When we neglect to teach it, when we underestimate it (my sin, or their sin is too great to cover/forgive), when we confuse it with the law or turn it into law, as though we could earn God’s grace, when we take it for granted (don’t need to hear, receive, already know…). But when we stand in the awe and radiance of the Gospel, the grace of God is magnified. Astonishing lengths—incarnation, humiliation, crucifixion, death, resurrection. We see great and terrible sinners redeemed by mercy. We see most sharply ourselves, with all our various sins, forgiven, Jesus’ words from the cross proclaiming life to us. We forget our selfish being at the marvel of God’s heavenly splendor (“Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow”) and gaze with joy at the beauty of His love. A love that is so altogether unlike our poor, selfish love, that it warms us with its Divine kindness and generosity.
·         What did Paul do to qualify for grace? Precisely nothing—in fact worse than nothing—he was acting contrary to Christ, and should have been least deserving. Didn’t hinder the amazing grace of God, which saved even a wretch like him. But if we can’t sing “like me” also—if we can’t say that we have sinned, are wretches and undeserving of God’s grace—then we’ve only deceived ourselves and God’s grace is not for us. If you don’t think you are a sinner, or don’t have sins to confess, then recall that Christ Jesus came into the world not for the righteous, but for sinners. But if we are sinners, and we’ll readily admit it—if we are chief of sinners, then Christ is for us. He takes all the undeserving, those who could only count negative marks to our credit—He takes even the “exceptional” sinners and forgives them and makes them His own.
·         So great is the power of His forgiveness. So great is God’s love that even hatred, persecution, insults and blasphemy could not stop Him from redeeming Paul, and making him into one of God’s most useful servants for the Gospel. Have no doubt that God has a plan and a use for you—that your life is also redeemed for His service. You cannot count up your sins and wrongs and say “God no longer can use me!”—you cannot say that He has no purpose for you. Paul has pulled that rug out of under us—no one can claim they are out of reach of God’s grace—that Christ’s forgiveness could not reach them. Some may refuse His grace—that is true—but it won’t be that God didn’t want to save them. God has claimed you in Christ Jesus—claimed you in the waters of Holy Baptism—claimed you for His service—claimed  you for an example of His love. God’s grace will be magnified also when it is multiplied—when yet another lost soul is claimed for the kingdom of God. All heaven will rejoice—celebration and music will ring out in God’s courts—over every lost sinner that repents! Can you imagine what’s it’s like to be there when heaven throws a celebration for a sinner come home to God?!
·         Till we get there—we can magnify the grace of God—tell out the greatness of the Lord! Be overwhelmed together with Paul, by the overflowing, abounding grace of God in Christ Jesus. Stand in the river of His mercy, carried up by the strength of His love, and witness your sins washed away in Jesus’ forgiveness. Echo back in thanksgiving those great words of praise to God: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Review the story of Saul before his conversion (later known as the Apostle Paul). Acts 7:58-8:3; 9:1-31. How would you characterize his opposition to the Christian faith at that time? How did Paul himself measure it? Galatians 1:13-15; Philippians 3:4-8; 1 Timothy 1:13.
  2. How did Paul’s conversion magnify the mercy of God? How does the example of Paul give hope to all the “tough-minded” and stubborn? Romans 5:6-11. Why is it still urgent that everyone believe in Jesus, and not delay? Matthew 10:32-33; Hebrews 9:27
  3. Paul describes the grace of our Lord “overflowing” or abounding to him with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. What is excessive, abundant, or unexpected about God’s grace? What troubling sins of yours have been covered by God’s undeserved love?
  4. Memorize the “trustworthy saying” in 1 Timothy 1:15, and keep it in your heart. What was God’s will and purpose for sending Jesus? Luke 5:31-32; 15:1-4; 19:10. What is so difficult about making the awfully honest assessment, like Paul, that we are “chief of sinners?” 1 Corinthians 2:14; Mark 7:20-23. Why is it necessary that we face our sin with such honesty? Luke 8:9-14; 1 John 1:8-10; Luke 15:7, 10.
  5. Paul says that in the mercy he was shown, Jesus’ perfect or whole patience was shown. His patience did not rush to judgment, but anticipated the time of Paul’s turning. Where in our lives might we exercise greater patience? Though God’s mercy is unfathomable and His patience is perfect, there is a point at which time runs out. 2 Peter 3:9-10; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:15-16. To turn to Jesus is to be spared that judgment.
  6. Reflect on the amazing truth that the Immortal, invisible, only God became incarnate (took on human flesh) in Jesus Christ, and subjected Himself to death, made Himself known to us, and opened salvation to us.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Sermon on Philemon 1-21, for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, "Charge it to me!"

Sermon Outline:
·         Context of the letter, Paul’s relation to Philemon, Philemon’s reputation, implied backstory about Onesimus. Context of slavery—not directly addressed, because not the main point, but a valuable separate discussion.
·         Paul’s circumstances, how he meets Onesimus. Rises above his circumstances/confinement; in another letter, Philippians, says it even advanced the Gospel. Onesimus’s personal transformation. Dramatic; “useless” to “useful”; “my very heart.” Runaway, loss, damage to his master’s property/finances; reckless? Redeemed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Willing to admit the wrong he had done, and return to his duty to his master. Turned back from the opportunity to run away—Paul aided him in making right what he had done wrong—beyond his own ability to do so. Paul’s affection for Onesimus—saw him now in a totally different light, and desired that Philemon view him no longer as the useless runaway who had caused him harm, nor even as just a slave, but as a beloved brother. In Philemon’s shoes—wronged, angry, maybe social pressure to apply the severest punishment to the runaway—set a precedent, don’t give other slaves ideas, etc.
·         Paul’s appeal:
    • Bold enough to command, but for love’s sake prefers appeal
    • My child, useful to me, my very heart, as though you served me through him
    • Not without your consent—for you goodness not to be compelled, but voluntary
    • Eternal purposes hidden in this separation, events
    • Remember my friendship—treat him as you would treat me
    • Charge it to me! (any wrongdoing or loss)
    • I will repay you (don’t forget you owe me yourself!) (positive vs. negative debt?)
    • I want some benefit from you in the Lord: Refresh my heart in Christ
·         Paul assumes Onesimus’ place, accepts responsibility for his wrongdoing (as far as he is able), promises repayment, and in writing the letter builds a bridge back to Philemon
·         Philemon’s opportunity: exercise faith, love, forgiveness. See a new person in Onesimus, elevate his status—regard him as beloved brother. Who is seeking our forgiveness? Our reconciliation? Onesimus’ shoes? Take forgiveness and run? Or go and admit our wrong and seek reconciliation? Or in Paul’s shoes, to whom can we be mediator or advocate? Can we appeal to one another with the boldness of Paul, and be confident of a goodness that will flow willingly, and not from compulsion? We can, in Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, you and I can and will be forgivers, reconcilers, ambassadors of Christ. We can appeal for those who have no voice, we can and should rely on one another with bonds of love and friendship that are not shy to help one another or ask for help. Paul said, “Yes brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ.” Paul and Philemon were held together in friendship by positive debts of love. The love that can never be fully repaid or returned, but should flow continuously between Christians. Redeemed for a purpose—to live out Christ’s love. Our life parallels that of Onesimus—once useless, in the damage he caused, abandonment of duty—we are recalled to faithful and useful service.
·         Runaways from God, lost sons and daughters. Useless; who can measure the harm or loss we’ve done through disobedience, recklessness, hurt toward others (known and unknown). And yet how does God receive us back? How does Jesus send us back to the Father? “Charge it all to me.” Count all their wrongs, their offenses, the damage they have done, to me. Christ steps into our shoes more fully than Paul ever could for Onesimus—Jesus takes our sin and guilt to His credit, applies His good name and His own goodness and innocence itself to our credit, by faith.
·         We come as “letter carriers” to the Father, runaways coming home, carrying the letter, the good news, of the Gospel—the mediating work of Jesus applied on our behalf. The loving appeal of God’s Son to the Heavenly Father, that He receive us back as though receiving Jesus Himself. Paved the way, paid the price, appealed to the Father’s loving and merciful reputation. Very Father who sent Jesus out to bring the lost home; can be no doubt of His willingness to receive back the repentant, the homeward bound. No fear or trepidation that He might not receive us—it is in fact promised to us in Christ Jesus. God has indeed received us back, and He has found in us useful, dear children, so that He can in turn send us out as having “His very heart” and send us out confident of our obedience in Christ, and confident of the goodness that we will willingly do for love’s sake, serving others, and bringing Christ’s love to them as well.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Note:  While slavery is part of the context of Paul’s letter to Philemon, it is not the central point of the letter—which focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation. This isn’t to say that Scripture is indifferent on the matter, or that it’s not an issue which Christians felt a deep motivation to change. If you have The Lutheran Study Bible, read the articles on p. 101 and 2095 about the similarities and differences between slavery in the ancient world, and our more recent American history.
  2. Both Paul, and Onesimus, the runaway slave, faced circumstances of confinement or lack of total freedom. Paul was imprisoned, and Onesimus was a slave to his master. How did their faith enable them to thrive and to be of great use in the kingdom of God, despite their circumstances? Philippians 1:12-18; Philemon 10-13, 15-16.
  3. What qualities of Philemon’s Christian character, did Paul appeal to, in his entreaty for Philemon to receive back Onesimus? Philemon 4-7
  4. Reread the letter carefully. Do you think that Paul is applying pressure to Philemon, to get him to do what is right? How does he wish that Philemon would respond (v. 14)? In light of our sinful nature, do you think that we sometimes need a little extra prodding to do what is right?
  5. In verses 20-21, we see that Paul had a high expectation of Philemon, based on his character, his Christian love, and his friendship to Paul. Onesimus’ own life may have been at stake in the matter, as masters had the legal right to exercise capital punishment against runaway slaves. Are we sometimes too reluctant to call on one another for help, or to challenge each other to big things, and doing what is right in a hard circumstance, for the fear of being in debt to someone (not in the financial sense, but in owing a favor)? Is this a Christian attitude or not?
  6. How is the story of Paul and Onesimus a picture of Christ standing in our place, becoming in all respects like us (except without sin) and making an appeal on our behalf? What is particularly Christ-like about Paul’s words, “charge it to my account” (v. 18)? 1 Peter 1:18-19; Luke 7:41ff

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Sermon on Luke 14:7-14, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "Only One can be First"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the Gospel reading, Luke 14, especially verses 7-14, Jesus teaches about some ordinary situations from life: things like social etiquette, seeking honor, or who we associate with. The same theme is in the Old Testament reading. It’s better to be invited up to a place of honor, than to seek it for yourself, and then be ashamed when it’s taken away from you. In the reading from Proverbs, this situation was in the king’s court. In Jesus’ parable, it’s a banquet. Where do we attempt to “establish a pecking order”? Where do we get wrapped up in “social positioning”, letting other people know who we are and who we associate with?
At our meals? Our parties? Our workplaces? Even in our churches? In school? Or in the entirely new environment of online social networks? What if we did an experiment, and asked all of you, to line up in order of importance, from the front of the church to the back? That’s right, the most important of you, come up front, the least important, go to the back. While hopefully none of us would be so bold-faced as to even participate, much less rush to the front—don’t we secretly do it anyhow, in our minds? And how would we even measure our own importance? On our physical strength or prowess? Our intelligence? Our wealth? Our social connections? Our jobs or titles? How would we sort ourselves out, from greatest to least? Who would we consider above or below us, if any? Who is simply invisible to us, that we don’t even notice?
As Christians, we should rightly be appalled by such thoughts. We know better. But I can bet on it, that your sinful nature is just as fallen as mine, and that we do nevertheless—even if only in our thoughts, create these sorts of rankings. Is it about who we need to rub elbows with to get ahead at work? In politics? Is it about not being caught dead talking to that kid in the hallways or lunchroom at school? “This is my best friend…and this is my best friend forever! But that person…they don’t even exist!” In all sorts of ordinary situations we rank and form cliques, we posture ourselves, we take pride in who we do or don’t associate with.
In Jesus’ time it was the banquets and feasts where this was most obviously took place, as people craved positions of honor. The disciples James and John, together with their mother, even pleaded for the highest places at Jesus’ left and right in the kingdom of heaven. A Pharisee prided himself in not being so low and sinful as a tax collector. Others scorned Jesus for healing a sick man, or accepting the anointing of a sinful women, or going to eat at the home of Zaccheus, the tax collector. James wrote about the favoritism his churches were showing to the rich, over the poor. It’s seemingly impossible to escape from this sinful activity of putting ourselves up and over others. Impossible because of our sinful nature that we carry around with us. It’s not just what somebody else does. Even if it’s just in our mind, we’re all at it in some way. We need to first examine our own hearts.
Jesus shows us how to abandon our pretensions, our opinions of self-importance, and go to the lowest place. Find that place, and occupy it with humility. If you’re to be honored, then let someone else, not you. If you’re having a banquet, a social event, don’t just invite friends, neighbors, relatives and rich neighbors who can repay you, lest they invite you in return and you be repaid. But invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. Jesus’ advice turns all our normal behavior on its head, turns our worldly values on their heads, and shows us the way of the kingdom of God. He shows us, as one of my professors wrote: “In God’s world, putting other’s first is the only way to get along. To God alone belongs the glory of creating us, redeeming us, and raising us to new heights in Christ...He raises the lowly and puts down the proud” (Rev. David Scaer, sermon on Luke 14). It’s God’s job to repay, and to give honor.
You see, as long as we’re preoccupied with ourselves, our importance, our position relative to everyone else, we have no time for, or take no notice of the humble and needy. Those who suffer are invisible to us, if we’re obsessed with ourselves and our importance. But Jesus wants to clear all those sinful thoughts from our mind, and to help the poor and needy. And as quick as we can say those words, our sinful nature will jump to work, and find a way for us to parade our humility before others! “See how humble I am? Watch me help this person!” We look over our shoulders to find approving glances from others, and pats on the back, and our sinful nature has done a somersault to get our pride back into play.
And instead of helping others for the sake of their need, and to value and honor them as human beings, of worth and dignity, we make them mere objects of our pity. When Jesus said who we should invite, He intentionally named categories of people, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, who had no ability to repay. No social networking ties, no special graces or favors to offer in return. They’re not a means of satisfying our pride. Pity is a strange thing. It’s good to have pity on someone who suffers, or who is hopelessly caught in a situation that requires outside help, or when someone is bearing an injustice. We should take pity, and help. But pity can quickly be warped by our sinful nature, as a way to show others that “I, indeed I (!), am doing this good thing—don’t you see!” In doing so, we humiliate the person we are helping, and make fools of ourselves to show off our generosity or benevolence. By contrast, Christ calls us to serve others His way: as a servant, helping from beneath—even the lowest person, placing ourselves still lower—lifting them up by love and service.
We have to know that our sinful nature dies hard. There’s only one suitable fate for that old sinful nature, and it is the death of repentance. It’s to repeatedly, daily, let the hammer blows of the law nail our sinful nature to Christ’s cross, and by confessing our sin and pride, watch Jesus crucify and bury our sin. There at the cross and in the fire of our trials under the cross, we’re purified like silver before a fire, the dross, the sin, burning away. And Christ gives us purity of heart, not by our efforts, but by His pure love moving into our hearts, His Spirit pouring into us through baptismal waters. Filling us to overflowing, carrying away sin and impurity, that we might be cleansed for His service. And despite all our warped sinful tendencies toward pride, and our mixed motives for doing good, He works through our good works to help our neighbors who are in need. Christ redeems our acts of charity and Christian service, and uses them for good. When we become servants to the needy, Christ lifts up the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, and seats them at His table. King David foreshadowed this in the Old Testament when he seated Mephibosheth, the tragically crippled son of his dear friend Jonathan, at the king’s dining table. He treated him as an honored equal, like his own beloved son.
Jesus wants us to be free of the presumption of all this social positioning, so that we can attend to the poor and needy, and not in a way that humiliates them by service from above, but values them by service from below. Jesus, who was not above putting on the towel to wash His disciples feet, shows us how to serve. But Jesus was not the impossible perfect example we could never follow—rather He was a servant also to us, for our sakes, turning His eyes to our suffering and need, and giving us that unexpected and undeserved invitation, to “come up here” and be seated at His banqueting table. He wasn’t preoccupied with any self-importance, any desire to position Himself above others, or to make friends by associating with the “in crowd.” His loving attention was turned entirely toward us sinners in our need. And no one is “invisible” to Him.
We all want a place at the heavenly banqueting table (or should), but it’s not a competition—as though there were VIP tickets that might sell out. There are ample places at the table, but we don’t come by self-invitation, and we certainly don’t get there by pushing others out of the way in our climb to the place of honor. We come at God’s invitation, as He welcomes us into His kingdom, and at His expense. As Pastor Roschke shared last week, the invitation is costly, but is paid in full, at Christ’s expense. It comes free of charge, and everyone gets an invitation. He calls us, He invites us by His Holy Spirit, and He determines the “seating arrangement”. It’s for Him to bestow honor, not us. Jesus does not “discriminate” by whom He’d rather rub elbows with, by social position, wealth, health, or state of mind. He looks instead for faith in Him, that He Himself plants in our hearts by His Word and Spirit.

It’s not a competition to get ahead of someone else—either in this life or the next. It’s not about putting ourselves first. Because there is only One who can be and forever is first—Jesus Christ—who made Himself last for our sake. And there is only One who deserves the highest place of honor above all other names. Jesus takes His place at the head of the heavenly banqueting table, not by exalting Himself, but instead becoming last of all and the lowliest servant of all mankind, humbling Himself to death, even death on a cross. And Christ, who is risen from the dead, now gives us a foretaste of that heavenly feast to come. “Jesus comes today with healing, knocking at my door, appealing, offering pardon, grace, and peace. He Himself makes preparation, and I hear His invitation: ‘Come and taste the blessed feast!’” (LSB 620:1) In His name, Amen.