Monday, August 27, 2018

Sermon on Galatians 3:15-22, for the 13th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr lectionary), "The Covenant of Promise"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The epistle of Galatians is a short, 6 chapter letter written to one of the Apostle Paul’s mission churches he’d helped to establish 2,000 years ago. He wars against the ever-popular opinion that we can be justified before God by our works. We saw it a few weeks ago in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee thought he had God’s law down just fine, and had nothing to be sorry for before God. Besides, everyone else he knew was worse than him! He was righteous in his own eyes—trusted in his good effort to get him in good with God. We don’t have to be quite as pompous as the Pharisee to fall into the same trap. But the tax collector knew better. He cried out: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Jesus said that tax collector went home justified, with God’s verdict of innocence.
Paul is determined in Galatians 3 to drive away the spirit of the Pharisee, trusting our effort, our law keeping, our own goodness, “good heart”, or “good intentions” to put ourselves in good graces with God. Why is this so important? Because trusting in ourselves gives room for boasting and pride, and it pushes God out as our singular Savior, and reduces Him to just a helper or enabler, or even some lower status. The sin of pride diminishes God while increasing ourselves—exactly the opposite of what John the Baptist said must happen. Paul proves his point from the Old Testament. His example is two different covenants/contracts/ agreements that God made with His people. One of those two covenants takes ultimate priority.
God’s covenant with Abraham was the covenant of promise. Then about a covenant 430 years later at Mt. Sinai came the covenant of law. During that 430 years God’s promise to Abraham began to be fulfilled: his descendants grew into a great nation. Near the end of that time the Israelites were led by Moses out of Egypt—the Exodus. This 430 year period covers Abraham, Isaac, Jacob & Esau, Joseph, and all of the Israelites who grew into a mighty nation, enslaved under the Pharaoh in Egypt. When they left Egypt, still trusting in promises made to Abraham generations ago, God took them to Mt. Sinai to give the 10 Commandments. This covenant of Law at Mt. Sinai is the second covenant. So you have two covenants—the promise to Abraham, which was first—and the covenant of law at Sinai—430 years later.
Paul asks—does the second covenant, the Law at Sinai, invalidate the first? Definitely NO! God won’t go back on His Word, after He’s confirmed and ratified His covenant. Just like a human contract is supposed to work—you can’t go changing the terms or cancelling it, once it’s been signed and approved. And God’s covenants are infinitely more solemn and serious than our human contracts and agreements. The upshot is that God’s covenant to Abraham is clearly greater—and it depended on God’s promise—not the works of the law. God’s promise to Abraham didn’t require anything on Abraham’s part in return. In other words, it was “unconditional” or a covenant of grace. Grace, promise, inheritance—these are all gospel words that speak of something that is not earned, not deserved, but given. We need to learn these words so that we give credit where credit is due—all glory and honor to God alone! These words all help us to decrease, but Christ to increase. Paul piles on the reasons to show that everything Abraham received by God’s promise was completely by grace—a free and undeserved gift from God, so that we might have joy in the same free gift.
Now then what was that covenant of Law, at Mt. Sinai about? That was a “conditional” covenant. It was not about grace, but about commands and obedience. Blessings for obedience to God’s commands, and curses and punishment for disobedience. The tragedy is that this covenant was broken. Israel, and mankind more generally, could not hold up their end of the deal. The covenant of law does ask something of us in return. A few verses earlier in Galatians 3:10, Paul cites the words of that covenant: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, and do them.” This second covenant clearly extracts a price for disobedience. Failure even in part demands the curse. Only total, perfect obedience satisfies the covenant of law. The covenant to Abraham, by contrast, was upheld strictly by God’s promise and Name. This is what I mean by calling the covenant of promise “unconditional”.
Back to the Pharisee and tax collector example, Paul would have argued that the Pharisee looked to the Law for his salvation. He was trying to reach the bar of the covenant of Law, and get God’s approval. But he was self-deceived, just as Jesus showed. Only Christ reaches that bar. Nobody takes a run at those hurdles of the law, and clears them all unscathed. In fact, Jesus faulted the Pharisees with trying to cheat by lowering the hurdles and praising themselves for clearing the “low bar” laws they made up themselves in their enthusiasm for the law, but their overlooking of the promise. Jesus (and Paul!) continually raise the hurdles to the full extent of the law, and show how none of us meets that standard. Why? So we’ll trust in God’s promises instead of ourselves! So that we’ll cling to the greater covenant of unconditional grace to Abraham and his descendants (those included by faith!), instead of clinging to the impossible covenant of the Law.
But then what was the Law covenant for anyway? He says it was to imprison everything under sin, so we would wait for the promise by faith. Sadly, because of sin, we need restraining by God’s good law. Left to our own devices, we don’t often stay on the straight and narrow, or automatically do what is kind and just. Instead, our sinful nature is constantly leading us astray. The Law checks and guards our sin, and teaches us what is God pleasing. But most importantly, it convicts us of our sin. It rings the alarm in our conscience of accusation or guilt, that tells us when we have done wrong. But the problem with that word of the Law, is that it can’t give us any solution. The covenant of the Law doesn’t contain the answer to our problems. Believer or unbeliever, Pharisee, tax collector, disciple, whoever—the Law is not our avenue to getting right with God. It’s a dead end for that purpose. No one is getting to God that way.
But this goes back to Paul’s argument. The Law was never supposed to be the way to God—and that’s a great and joyful relief! Whatever failings occurred under the second, law covenant, did not invalidate the first and greater covenant to Abraham. This stayed in effect by God’s unconditional promises. All nations are blessed through the promise of the One offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ. Through Christ, that covenant reached God’s fulfillment. God kept His Word to send blessing through Abraham’s one offspring—and Jesus even fulfilled and perfectly kept the covenant of Law—the 10 Commandments, also. God’s promise never failed.
The Law could never give us life—but Christ does give us life. The promise by faith in Jesus Christ is given to those who believe. Jesus and Paul get us off the dead end road, and onto Jesus—the Way, the Truth and the Life. Surrender your attempts to rely on yourself, and hang on only to His Word. Jesus is the Way to the verdict of innocence, the verdict of justified by faith.
Why does that matter so much for our lives today? Because what greater gift could we receive than God’s free and undeserved favor? The forgiveness of all our sins, a slate wiped clean, the promise that we remain in Jesus and He in us! In Christ, our salvation is full, complete and free—from start to middle to finish. Any other way, that relies on works, leaves either the beginning, middle or end up to us—and that leaves room for boasting, or failure, or despair. Relying entirely on Jesus Christ and His promise leaves us open to humility, thankfulness, joy, confidence and hope. In fact this is Jesus’ very purpose for you—that in Him you may have joy, and that your joy may be full. Life’s better when God gets the credit. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at

1.      Read Genesis 12:1-3. What were the three main, original promises God made to Abraham? This was a covenant or contract between God and Abraham. Was is “conditional” or “unconditional?” Does that make it a covenant of “law” or “promise?”
2.      If a man made covenant is not supposed to be annulled or have terms added after it’s been confirmed—how much more is this true of a covenant ratified or confirmed by God? Why won’t God change His covenant, once He’s committed to it? Hebrews 6:17-18.
3.      In Genesis 22:17-18 is one place where it refers to Abraham’s “offspring” (cf. Galatians 3:16). All nations on earth will be blessed through the one “offspring” Christ Jesus. How does this show the covenant God made to Abraham remains in effect beyond the later covenant made at Mt. Sinai?
4.      What was different about the covenant made at Mt. Sinai? Was it conditional or unconditional? Law, or promise (Gospel)? Why was it put into effect? Galatians 3:19, 21-22.
5.      The Law and the Gospel have different, but related purposes. Explain what the purpose of each is? Why is it “good news” (i.e. gospel) for us that we receive the promise by faith in Christ? Galatians 3:22. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Sermon on Isaiah 29:17-24, for the 12th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr Lectionary), "God's Mighty Reversals"

Sermon Outline: 
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
·         Isaiah 29—miracles of Jesus’ ministry. 700 years before Jesus. Example of the miracles in the Gospel reading—heal the deaf and mute.
·         Prophecy > fulfillment shows the Bible is God’s inspired Word
·         deaf hear, blind see, the meek and the poor rejoicing in the Lord. Reversals of injustice, suffering, oppression.
·         Reversals go beyond the suffering, to also oppressors >> ruthless come to nothing; scoffer ceases; all who watch to do evil, cut off
·         Take a sample at any age in history, and find suffering and injustice—different kinds, but ultimately the same. Progress in some ways, regress in others.
·         Isaiah’s day—Judah soon to be destroyed. All the surrounding region. Spiritually deaf and blind, they won’t look at or hear God’s Word. God’s judgment will fall on them. How useful to the devil when we are spiritually blind and deaf! When we won’t listen to God’s Word, we too face judgment. But this passage turns to the restoration, when that judgment has passed.
·         Read v. 17—Lebanon. See other verses in Is. 2:13, Zech. 11:1-2; proud, majestic forests leveled. Think of National Parks—Redwoods, Sequoias, symbolic national treasure. Destroyed, razed. Now 29:17 is the reversal. God restoring what was devastated.
·         Fruitful field > forest? So lush and rich in growth, not just a farm field, but back to the glory of a forest. God doesn’t stop with a little growth, but turns the wasteland to abundance
·         V. 18 deaf shall hear words of a book. videos of First time hearing or seeing—stunned emotion, tears of joy—hearing the voice of mom or friends, leave silence and enter the world of music and sound or color and sight. “out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.” Situation of blind and deaf are much improved today in 1st world, but in 3rd world countries it is often a sentence for early death, poverty or great suffering. In Jesus’ day, what joy! (v. 19) Some of the greatest rejoicing in the Lord now and in the past, comes from the poor and the meek! How little those who are full and have everything remember to be thankful!
·         No one cares for the meek and the poor quite like God does. Commentator said that if all the odds in the world seem in favor of the corrupt and violent, that is the fault of the oddsmakers, because God is on the side of the powerless who trust in Him (Oswalt).
·         V. 20-21 describe oppressors and reversal that God works against them. 
·         Ruthless—those oppressors who heartlessly squeeze the weak to extract what they can from them; scoffer—mocks truth, honor, and decency, and delights to serve himself at the cost of others; all who watch to do evil—political and judicial authorities on the lookout for ways to use their power to prey on the innocent
·         “All who watch to do evil shall be cut off
§  By a word make a man out to be an offender (false accusations, slander)
§  Lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate (stop the righteous man from intervening against evil)
o   With an empty plea, turn aside him who is in the right (deny justice to the innocent)
·         We can see all these today—seeming imbalance of justice and injustice. It will all be overturned—not just future, but God’s promise is that the way of the wicked will not prosper or succeed. No lasting joy or peace for them. Wicked are consumed by fear, uncertainty, loss. The believer has certainty, trust, and gain in God, whether their fortunes in life are good, modest, or poor. Our hope does not ride on the tides of life, but on God our Rock. Our reward is not merely physical but spiritual. The Truth of God’s Word brings the ruthless, the scoffer, and the evil to nothing.
·         The first words on the lips of Christians who see the suffering of the world needs to be “Lord, have mercy!” not “There ought to be a law!” Blessed is the one whose help is in the Lord. He is the one who executes true justice for the poor and oppressed, the little people and the great people. He brings the ways of the wicked to ruin (Phil Brandt)
·         Jesus ministry= beginning of reversals—healing miracles as sign. Mt. 11, John the Baptist sends messengers? Are you the One? Jesus says watch—all the signs prophesied by Isaiah and more are fulfilled. Jesus fits the job description + more. Blind, deaf, lame, lepers, dead, poor, all experience reversals at Jesus’ hand. He is the One to restore justice.
·         Result of Jesus’ redemption, according to v. 22-24: no more shame for Israel—instead, rejoicing. Cf. Luther’s Small Catechism, expl. to 3rd Article of Creed. What does the Holy Spirit do? Calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. Jacob, the great grandfather of the Israelites sees his children gathered together, sanctified (made holy) in God’s name. They are the work of God’s hands. His creation, His redeemed, His sanctified. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
·         What do they do? They praise God’s name and stand in awe!
·         Wandered from the faith, return to learn. Complainers come to instruction. God restores the lost. God’s Great Reversals all through history. Odds seem stacked against His people, but He’s always with the powerless who trust in Him. We are the church of God, the children who are the work of His hands, and we have seen in the past, and in our present, and still hope to see many Great Reversals at the hand of God—reversals of lifting up the humble, and bringing low and defeating the wicked. Lord, have mercy! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at

1.      Read Isaiah 29:17-24. Look at this description of a great “reversal” that God is going to bring about. Two main groups are described—those who are humble and suffering, and the proud and the wicked. How are each described? What reversal of their fortunes will they experience?
2.      The forests or cedars of Lebanon were a well-known landmark and symbol of glory, pride, and majesty. Isaiah 2:12-13; 10:34; 37:24, and Zechariah 11:1-2 all talk about this forest being leveled. But Isaiah 29:17 talks about the reverse—the glory and fruitfulness of fields returning until they are as great as a forest. What does this say about the flourishing of God’s kingdom? How does this happen?
3.      Read vs. 18-19 and compare to Matthew 11:5-6. How does Jesus fulfill these words of prophecy, along with Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1? What does Jesus do that is even more than described here? Who puts their trust in God, and why won’t they be disappointed?
4.      What are the examples of the sins of the arrogant and wicked? V. 20-21. How do we see these today? What is frustrating about the progress of evil? But what is their final end? Psalm 73:16-19, 27.
5.      In Luther’s Small Catechism, the explanation of the 3rd Article of the Creed, he describes the work of the Holy Spirit in this way: [The Holy Spirit] “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” How is this description paralleled in Isaiah 29:23-24. How does the Spirit make the church come alive? How do they respond?
6.      Describe the Great Reversal theme in this passage one more time—reflecting on how God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is active in this reversal.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14, for the 11th Sunday after Trinity (1 Yr lectionary), "Give me a pedestal, or bring me to my knees?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s parable may be familiar: the Pharisee and the tax collector. Two men are praying to God in the Temple. They stand up before God and before men. But with two very different attitudes and  outcomes.
Jesus approves the tax collector with this phrase: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Jesus approves the tax collector with the word “justified.” That’s God’s verdict—God has declared you innocent; righteous in His eyes—justified. The other possible verdict is “condemned”—God declares you guilty, or unrighteous in His eyes. Justified or condemned, innocent or guilty—these are the two opposite verdicts. The surprise is that Jesus doesn’t justify the man who appears better, more law-abiding, and religious—namely, the Pharisee. But instead, the tax collector, a despised sinner, whose job was identified with crooks—the one who to all the world looks guilty—he goes home justified.
Justified is where we want to be also. That’s the verdict we should want from Jesus. The Pharisee shows us how not to get there. He was the example of those who trusted in their own righteousness. If you trust in your own righteousness, essentially it means that you are trying to pass your own verdict. No matter how a defendant in court pleads their own innocence, that cannot overrule the judge’s verdict. But we still try to play defendant and judge at the same time, and claim that our judgment of ourselves is better than God’s. Whatever tricks we may play, no one can push God out of the judgment seat or avoid His justice. We have to play by His rules. His Law, His court.
But then do we fear the courts of the Lord’s house? No, this parable shows we can approach His judgment seat, (or use the new name given it by the book of Hebrews) the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16). We can approach God’s throne of grace “with confidence”.
But the Pharisee had the wrong kind of confidence. His confidence was in himself. He thought he saw a pretty impressive man in the mirror, which also meant that he was stepping up on a pedestal, to look down on everyone else. When he looked at his fellow man, he did not see his equals, or men and women made in God’s image, or even people struggling with the same sins and failures as himself—he only saw the misery and failure and wickedness of others, and “Thank God I have no part in that!” “Thank God I’m not like them!” What a thing to thank God for! He might as well have said: “Thank God that I’m God’s gift to man”.
We’re all inclined to same sort of thing. And the thing is, you don’t have to be wealthy, powerful, or religious to step on that pedestal. Anyone can and will attempt it, to find their own good reasons to trust in themselves, and treat others with contempt. Ironically judgmentalism is an equal opportunity employer. Anyone can wear the suit, and stand on the pedestal—and the number of reasons for why we think we’re better than others, is endless. All that we need, is some difference between ourselves and others—real or perceived—and we step up on that pedestal and declare our superiority. It’s hard not to step on that pedestal. It’s hard to be humble, and to refuse to step on it. In fact, one  of the easiest ways to step into that trap is for our prayer to become: “Thank God I’m not like that nasty Pharisee, or those priggish hypocrites.” And quick as you like, we’ve become the very thing we’ve despised.
They tell stories about one of my uncles who would go around saying: “Humble?!? I’m the humblest man in the world!!” And of course the humor of that and the truth of the matter is that even humility can be pretended, to pass yourself as better than others. We want people to praise and affirm us, and so the temptation is to find one way or another to get on a pedestal. In religious circles, false humility might get attention. But even showy deeds, like the Pharisee’s brag about his giving, can boost you up in some circles. In societal circles, the flashy car, biggest salary, or biggest boasts might get you the attention. Right now there’s a bizarre status structure based on how victimized a person or group thinks they are. The more you can position yourself as being the one who is oppressed, the more right you have to be judgmental and superior, without feeling guilty for judgmentalism. The point is, our sinful human nature can twist and pivot and slither a thousand ways till Sunday to give ourselves the permission to feel that we are above all the rest, or that we deserve to be on that pedestal.
So what is our prayer to God going to be? “Give me that pedestal?” Of course everything would be ok if God would just approve how hard we have worked, or how good we are, or how much we have been put upon by everyone else. All God has to do is agree with our own judgment, and we’ll have the satisfaction of His approval, which is really just an echo of ours. That’s the miserable slog and lie of self-righteousness, of trusting in ourselves. We can hide it deep under a mask of false humility and religiosity, or wear it brash and rude on our sleeves, but it still stinks the same. God has to dash and humble this kind of arrogance if we dare to come this way before God’s throne.
But look at the tax collector. Rather than asking for God to give me a pedestal, we should be asking God, like he did—bring me to my knees. Listen how one prayer does it. On pg. 292 in our hymnal (LSB), there is a short form of private confession, if a person wants to confess their sins before the pastor to receive personal absolution. It reads like this:
I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin. What troubles me particularly is that… and the person may then name the sins that weigh on their hearts.

Like the tax collector’s, this prayer finds no one else to blame; makes no excuses for our sin, but recognizes we stand guilty before God. To approach the throne of grace with confidence,  we must only have a confidence in God’s mercy. The humble confidence that cries out: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!
This humble confidence trusts not in ourselves, but in God who has mercy. It’s a confidence based on the character of God, that He has mercy on those who seek Him. Trusting in His mercy, tax collectors or sinners like you and I—guilty before God of all sins—find an open welcome from God, when we turn from our sin and come follow Him.
Jesus’ mercy is first shown to us in untying those burdens. I have lived as if God did not matter, and as if I mattered most. Jesus draws that poisoned selfishness out of us, and gives us a new heart, beating with the rhythm of “God matters most”, and the desire to live for and serve others. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. Jesus takes our defiled tongue, and cleanses and renews it to give praise to Him, to speak blessing to others, and fill our mouths with prayer. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. To the humbled heart, to the heart that wants to go home justified by God, not by ourselves and our flimsy self-righteousness—to this heart, Jesus enters in and makes a home. Lord, have mercy and let your love have its way with me! Let your love wash me over and make me clean again! There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I have failed to help. Again Lord, help me to reconcile and repair those wounds that I have caused. Help me to take responsibility, and Jesus, open my eyes to those whom I need to help!
So Jesus’ mercy is first seen in untying these burdens, laid down in repentance. But secondly, His mercy shines in granting us that verdict of “justified”. We never deserved it. This verdict is that God transfers the righteousness of His Son Jesus, onto you—so that you can stand before His throne of grace with confidence. As a washed, forgiven, loved child of God. Sent joyfully home with the word “justified” stamped over your name. Approved by God, not for what you have done, but for the sake of what Jesus has done for us. This is the mercy of God that the tax collector received, when he humbly prayed: “God have mercy on me, a sinner”.
We began by noticing that these two men—the Pharisee and tax collector, both stood before God and before men. We too, stand in relation to God, and to each other. How will we stand? On a pedestal? Treating others with contempt? Do we give our stamp of approval to ourselves, and expect God to echo it? Or does the Holy Spirit bring you to your knees? Block the sins of others out from your sight—you’re not being judged in relation to them anyway—and make confession of your own sin to God. The only way to God’s approval, to God’s verdict of “justified”—is the humbling of the Holy Spirit, and throwing all your trust on God. You’ve heard me describe faith this way before. Faith is “honesty about dependence” on God. Trusting in yourself, that you are righteous, ala the Pharisee—is a dishonesty about yourself and your dependence.
Not only is our relationship with God transformed when He creates faith in us, or this honesty about dependence on Him. But our relationship with others is transformed as well! We don’t have to be in the constant and pointless game of jockeying for position, trying to determine who’s better, who’s more deserving, what’s fair or unfair, or promoting ourselves as superior in any way. If we’re honest about dependence on God, we can give up that whole silly exercise, and get back to seeing each other as sheep for whom Christ died. Children loved by their heavenly Father, whether they’re in the sheepfold already, or still needing to be sought and found. We can live as the justified do—to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Only Jesus can keep us humbly on that path, and fill us with His thankfulness and joy. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
Read sermons at:
Listen: search your podcast app for “The Joshua Victor Theory” or
listen online at

1.      Read Luke 18:9-14. In their own eyes, and the eyes of others, how did these two men stand before others (i.e. what would people have thought of them)? How did they stand before God? Cf Luke 18:9; 16:15.
2.      What does the verdict “justified” mean? What is it’s opposite? Why can’t we pass our own verdict, or have God echo ours? Romans 3:10-23. Who is God? Genesis 18:25; Hebrews 12:23.
3.      Why can we approach the “throne of grace” with confidence? Hebrews 4:16? What is the wrong kind of confidence to bring with you? How do we fall into this trap? What pedestals do we make for ourselves?
4.      Look at the prayer of individual confession, on pg. 292. When we confess our sins before God, why is it important to follow the tax collector’s template, or this template, in excluding all other people and their sins from the conversation? What relationship is this prayer focused on? How did the tax collector find mercy?
5.      How does Jesus show His mercy to us through repentance? Romans 2:4. How does Jesus cleanse our sin, and give us a new spirit?
6.      How does Jesus show His mercy by this (undeserved) verdict of innocence (being justified)?
7.      Consider the definition “honesty about dependence” as a description of faith. How does it explain the actions of the two men? How does true honesty about dependence change our relationships, both toward God and toward our fellow people?