Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Sheep, the Goats, and the Lamb

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 23, 2014 (The Last Sunday in the Church Year)

What’s the difference?  How does one get to be on the side of the sheep rather than the goats?  That’s not an insignificant question.  The world is unstable due to the sin of its inhabitants, and headed for judgment.  We don’t know when that judgment will come, and so we are reminded that we are always to be ready.  But how?  What’s the difference between the sheep and the goats?  Our inborn sinful natures see this Gospel lesson and think of good works.  After all, Jesus praises the sheep for being charitable to those who needed help, while criticizing the goats for not doing the same things.  And so it is natural, especially for our self-centered sinful natures which always think of rewards for good works, to have the idea that the way to be with the sheep and not the goats is to go out and do all kinds of works of charity.

Unfortunately, this view of what Jesus is saying here is also completely and totally wrong.  Remember, the sheep were unaware that they had done these good things for Christ.  They saw themselves as poor, miserable sinners, not as great saints and great workers of charity.  They knew that they had not fulfilled God’s law, and so they’re surprised when Christ commends them for doing all of these great things for Himself.  And the goats thought that they had fulfilled God’s Law.  In fact, they protested Jesus’ criticism of them.  They thought that they were “good people”  who deserved to be allowed into eternal life.  The way you see yourself is just the opposite of the way God sees you.  If you think you’re a poor, miserable sinner, God sees you through the filter of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of your sins as a saint and a doer of great and wonderful good works for your neighbor.  If you think you’re a pretty good person, better than those “sinners” out there, then God sees you apart from Christ’s righteousness as a selfish, condemned sinner.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that those things cited by Jesus when He gives the reason for His verdict, are not those things that we normally think of when we hear the word, “sin.”  When we talk about “sinners,” we often to tend to think of murderers and adulterers and thieves and liars.  And of course, these sins are terrible distortions of how God intended us to live, and those who do such things are in need of repentance, and failing such repentance they too will be in danger of hell, because these sins are in fact expressions of selfishness and lack of love for our neighbors.  But that’s not what Jesus talks about in connection with the final judgment in this passage.  Instead He talks about more subtle sins.  He talks about sins of omission, things that are sinful when we don’t do them, rather than when we do.  He talks about feeding the hungry and thirsty, giving the stranger a place to stay, clothing the naked, and visiting shut-ins and those in hospitals and nursing homes and prisons.  He talks about love for the neighbor.  After all, what is the reason we keep the Ten Commandments?  Not simply because it was God who said, “Thou shalt not,” even though that is itself a good reason to keep them.  And definitely not because we are trying to earn heaven by what we do.  Instead, we keep the Ten Commandments because by doing so we show love for God and our neighbor.  But love doesn’t stop with what the Commandments say not to do; love goes beyond that to positive actions of caring and helping our neighbor.  We can see this in Luther’s explanations of the Commandments, which tell us positive actions that go along with the Commandment, such as “help and support [our neighbor] in every physical need,” “help him to improve and protect his possessions and income,” “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way,” and so on.

But more than that, the things Jesus says in this Gospel lesson talk about charity and love for the neighbor because of His own charity and love which He has shown us.  He visited us when we were sick and in the prison of this sinful world.  And not only did He visit us, becoming one of us and bearing all our sin and infirmity; but He healed the sickness of our sin, just as He healed those who were sick with frail and diseased bodies in His Ministry on earth.  He freed us from the prison of our sinfulness.  And just as He clothed Adam and Eve with skins after their Fall into sin, so He clothed our nakedness with the pure white garments of His perfect righteousness in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He feeds the hungry and gives drink to those who thirst with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper.

And so, the description of the sheep in today’s text is first and foremost a description of Christ Himself in the love and mercy He has shown us.  That is the only we can show love to our neighbors, because He has first loved us.  It is His love, His righteousness, His mercy which will be seen in us on that last day.  We cannot see it in ourselves; when we examine ourselves, all we see in our own hearts is nothing but sin and death, from which we cannot set ourselves free.  But by His love and mercy He has declared us to be righteous like He is, and even though we can’t see it He has, in fact, remade us in His image, so that we really are those who feed the hungry and thirsty, shelter the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and in prison.  The Judge will be speaking on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own, but He won’t be lying about us.  We really will be, and in fact we secretly already are, what He will attribute to us on that day.

But why does Christ say that He is present in, with, and under those we are helping through our charity?  From everything I’ve said so far, it sounds like He is the one working through us rather than the one receiving the fruits of our labor.  Well, He is on both sides of the equation.  The poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger are all pictures to us of what Christ became in our behalf.  Because it was on the Cross, in particular, that Jesus Himself was indeed hungry and thirsty; He had gone without food throughout the long night and day of His so–called “trial,” and remember His Words: “I thirst.”  It was on the Cross that He became a stranger, betrayed and deserted by His closest friends and forsaken by His own dear Father.  It was there on the Cross that He was naked before the entire world, while His clothes were divided among His enemies; there that He was “sick” to the point of death, and executed as a prisoner of His own people.

Christ has taken away sickness and hunger and pain and death from His people by taking it upon Himself.  This is why those who are sick and in prison and naked and hungry and thirsty and strangers are pictures of Him for us, because in saving us He was all those things, and if we refuse to help those who are afflicted in these various ways, we are denying that His sufferings for us have any meaning or value.  Christ is on both sides of the equation.  Through us He serves our neighbor, and through our neighbor He gives us the opportunity to show His love for us.  It is not by trying to do “good works” that we save ourselves, rather Christ has given us salvation as a free gift which shows itself in our lives, and will then, in turn show itself in the lives of those we help as well.  This is because Christian charity, unlike that of the government’s welfare programs, carries with it the message about the place where there is no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no poverty, no prisons, and no death.  Christian charity is a small picture for its recipients of the place we will inherit as Christ’s sheep.  There Christ will feed us for eternity with the feast of His victory which has no end.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Joy of Your Master

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 16, 2014 (The Second-to-Last Sunday in the Church Year)

The word talent as we know it in modern English actually comes from today’s Gospel lesson.  In today’s language, talent is defined as “a special natural ability or aptitude,” such as the ability to be good with numbers, good with music, great at basketball or running, or any of a thousand other things a person might be good at.  But in the Greek of the New Testament, a talent was a unit of money, specifically, a large gold coin.  Now, many interpreters of this parable have taught that the gold coins given out to the servants represent various gifts and abilities God gives to His Christians, which He then expects to use them in His service.  The association between these natural or special abilities and the gold coins of today’s Gospel lesson has historically been so strong that the Greek word for these gold coins became the English word for these abilities.

And that interpretation of this parable has some merit to it.  Each of us is unique, and each of us has unique abilities and areas of life that are our particular strong suit.  As we consider our place in life under the Ten Commandments, part of our “place in life” is the various abilities which God has given each of us.  After all, that’s part of how our particular place in life is determined.  Some are good at physical labor, others are good at intellectual pursuits and abstract thinking.  Some are talented in music, others in visual art.  Some have the ability to read facial expressions and body language very well and are thus able to figure out the politics of a situation when others of us are totally clueless.  And the list could go on.  As we think about how we serve God and our neighbor in our own place in life, our own particular talents do figure into the picture.  A strong swimmer has an opportunity to keep the Fifth Commandment by helping and supporting his drowning neighbor in every physical need in the way that a man who can’t swim simply can’t do.  And so it can be useful to see the parable in this way, as an exhortation to actually use the abilities that God has given us and not to hide them or cover them up out of fear of messing things up.

The problem, of course, is that, just as with all the other gifts that God has given us in this life, we have been unfaithful stewards of the abilities God has given us.  Music can glorify God; it can also glorify as god things that are not God.  Intellectual ability can be used to deny Him as well as to understand the world He has created.  Physical prowess can be used to hurt as well as to help.  And so on.  And so the mere use (as opposed to hiding away) of our abilities is not what gets us right with God.  In fact, if we glory in ourselves and our own abilities instead of glorifying God, our abilities can drive us farther away from Him.  That was what the third servant was afraid of doing; that’s why he hid the talent he had been given in the ground; he was afraid of what using it might do to hurt his relationship with his master.  Because apart from the Gospel, apart from Christ, our God really is “a hard man, reaping where He has not sown, and gathering where He has not scattered.”  There really is zero tolerance for those who abuse God’s gifts if their transgressions are not covered by Christ.  And that’s where we find ourselves as we look in the mirror of God’s law: we are either abusers of His gifts, or we are those who are afraid and hide them away.

Here is where I think we need to look at this parable a little differently.  If the talents of the parable are our natural abilities, then we have all failed to use them properly, if not failing to use them at all in God’s service.  However, if the talents in the parable are seen as something different, something special that God has given His Christians, then it changes the whole picture.  I’m not speaking here of any particular “spiritual gift” of the sort that many churches give their members surveys for.  Most such “spiritual gifts” are actually only natural talents, and, depending on how the survey is designed, often what is measured is not a person’s aptitude for a particular position in the church, but merely how much they happen to enjoy doing that thing.  You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it, or even to think that you’re good at it, for that matter.  No, there really is only one thing that God gives to Christians and not to everyone else.  All the blessings we have in this life are things that God gives both to the just and the unjust; as Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even the wicked, without our prayers.”  No, what God gives specifically to Christians is faith and trust in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation which was won for us by Christ on the cross and proclaimed to the world in the empty tomb.

That faith, that trust, is what works in us to produce all sorts of other good works.  That faith that God forgives, loves, and will save us is what gives us the freedom to serve God and our neighbor with whatever else He may have given us without fear.  It is precisely the absence of that faith that the third servant showed when he buried the coin in the ground.  He was so afraid of using the gift wrongly that he failed to receive the gift as a gift, but instead saw it as a burden.  And that is the exact wrong thing to do with the gift of faith.  In fact, to do that with the faith God has given you is to deny the content of that faith.  True Christian faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins.  It is doubt, not faith, that causes us to see God according to His wrath against sinners.  There is no wrath for those who trust in the forgiveness of sins, only the joyous freedom to go about our lives and do whatever we do to His glory and out of love for our neighbors.  To bury faith is to doubt God’s goodness.  But the gift here is God’s own demonstration of His love for us: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  It’s true that faith buried is no faith at all.  To see God as a harsh master is to see Him outside of Christ.  But that’s the beauty of His gift to us: faith gives us Christ Himself.  And it is He that works in and through us to love and serve our neighbor, both in the ordinary ways that come about as we go about our daily work, as well as in that most extraordinary way that God gives us, namely of telling our neighbor about Christ and thus giving him that eternal life where we will all share in the joy of our master.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Oil of Forgiveness

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 7, 2014 (The Third-to-Last Sunday in the Church Year)

There are many Christian churches out there who seem to make it their full-time occupation to try to figure out what is going to happen when in connection with the end times.  The tremendous popularity of the “Left Behind” books is part of this phenomenon.  Of course, the Lutheran church doesn’t agree with the thesis of those books, namely that the believers will be raptured out of the earth several years before the end of the world; we believe that  this is a mistaken interpretation of Revelation (and other passages) and that the believers will be taken to be with God on the last day itself.  The point is, no one will know the day or the hour.  And so it should not be our primary concern to figure out the end times.  Rather our primary concern is to make sure that we are always ready for His coming, that we always have the oil of our faith replenished by the Holy Spirit working in us daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament here in this place and through our private devotions as well.

There are no guarantees in this life.  Whether Christ’s return is imminent or a long ways off yet from our human perspective, there is no reason for complacency.  Things can happen, things which we do not plan for or expect.  That’s the reality of life in this world.  Even apart from the question of when Judgment Day itself will come, we are reminded that we could face our own personal Judgment Day at any time.  Those who die before the last judgment will have their eternal fate decided by the question of whether they trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of sins at the time of their death.  This, too, is Judgment Day.  This, too, can happen to any of us at any time.

In today’s text, Jesus tells a parable about two groups of virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so that they can play their part in the ceremonies of the wedding feast, which involved carrying their oil lamps in with the bridegroom when he arrived.  Five were wise and five were foolish.  The wise ones made sure that they were prepared by having extra jars of oil for their lamps, just in case the bridegroom was delayed.  The foolish ones only took the lamps themselves, and whatever oil was already in them.  As it happened, the bridegroom was indeed delayed for whatever reason, and so the oil in the lamps themselves was nearly burned up.  The ones who had not brought extra oil along asked the ones who had if they could borrow some, but the others replied that there wasn’t enough for all ten of them, so they would have to go find a shop that was still open and get some.  By the time they got back, however, they had already missed their part in the feast, and the bridegroom refused to let them in.  In fact, he was even so hard as to deny that he even knew who they were.

This parable is a picture of us as we await our Lord’s coming.  Our Lord has delayed His return for almost two thousand years now, and so it is tempting to forget that He is coming again at all.  It is tempting for many people, even if they know there is a heavenly Judge who will hold them accountable, to assume that they will have time to “get right with God” before they die, and that in the meantime they can simply do whatever they feel like.    But the fact of the matter is, you can’t do that.  You can’t cynically “get right with” God.  We can’t do anything from our end that will affect our relationship to Him.  What God expects of us is that we be perfect for our entire lives, and we already failed at that while we were too young to remember.  Even if we were able to be perfect for the rest of our lives, and we’re not, we would only be doing what God expected anyway, and so we wouldn’t be making up for what we had already done wrong.  And we can’t rely on other people, either.  We won’t be saved by having our names on a church membership roster; we won’t be saved because our parents or friends are Christians.  Yes, you were baptized, and the flame of faith was lit in your heart then, but if you aren’t replenishing your supply of oil through daily contrition and repentance, through frequently sharing in God’s Word and Christ’s body and blood, the oil just might not last and the flame of faith can go out.  The new you who was created in Baptism is just like any other human being; he needs to be fed or he will die.  And just like the foolish virgins who tried to borrow oil from their companions, we won’t be able to rely on the presence of our names on a congregational roster at that point.

So, if we are already sinners and we cannot make it up to God, then what?  Well, it is good to remember where our supply of oil comes from.  God Himself gave us the fire of faith in the water of Holy Baptism, and through His Word and His body and blood He continues to provide that fire with the fuel it needs to continue to burn brightly.  The sins you have committed are forgiven because of Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf on the cross.  And not only are those specific sins forgiven, but your inherited sinfulness, your inherited orientation away from God and toward that which displeases Him, of which specific sins are only mere symptoms, is also forgiven and taken away.  That forgiveness, given you by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace, is the oil which sustains your faith.  Nothing else can do it.  But that is enough.  Your sins are forgiven, and since your sins are forgiven, you have salvation and eternal life.  “For where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation,” according to the Small Catechism.

And since we have this forgiveness, life, and salvation, we can celebrate with joy the marriage feast of the lamb which has no end.  Since forgiveness is given to us even now, we have life and salvation even right now, even though we can’t see it yet.  In receiving Christ’s body and blood we participate in that great feast of victory which has no end, the marriage feast of the lamb in His kingdom.  And we are more than just bridesmaids and guests in that wedding feast.  We, the Church, are, collectively, the Bride Herself.  What we celebrate is nothing less than the union between ourselves and God, a union which was begun when the Son of God took on human flesh and united God and man in one Person, which will be fulfilled on the last day when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  This will be a greater and more glorious festival than any party, any wedding reception we have ever experienced here on earth.  We will be celebrating nothing less than our eternal fellowship with our creator.  “Now let all the heavens adore Thee, Let men and angels sing before Thee, with harp and cymbal’s clearest tone.  Of one pearl each shining portal, Where, dwelling with the choir immortal, We gather round Thy radiant throne.  No vision ever brought, No ear hath ever caught, Such great glory; Therefore will we Eternally Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I've moved.

Therefore I'm changing the name of the blog.

Blessed is Christ in You

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 2, 2014 (All Saints’ Day, transferred)

The first section of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly known as “the beatitudes,” is a description of all of God’s saints.  And that means that it’s a description of you.  You are a saint, if you are a Christian.  God’s people are holy.  He makes them that way.  And that’s what the word “saint” means.  Holy one.  Hallowed one.  All Hallows Day, or all Saints Day, is technically supposed to be on November 1st, which, by the way, is why All Saints Eve, or All Hallows Eve, or Hallows’ evening, or Hallowe’en, falls on October 31st.  But recently the custom in many Lutheran congregations has been to transfer this festival to the first Sunday in November, so that it actually gets celebrated.  Reformation Day usually gets transferred to the last Sunday in October for the same reason.  All God’s people are Holy.  He makes them that way.  He takes their unholiness, their impurity, into His own body and nails it to His own cross.  He declares us to be righteous and holy.  And we are.  We become holy, because He says we are, just as at the beginning of Creation the light shone forth because God said it did.  We are sanctified.  We are saint-ified.  The Beatitudes are a description of what we, God’s saints, are.

Those who have gone on before us are saints too.  In the medieval church, saints were thought to be those who went straight to heaven when they died instead of spending time in purgatory.  Certain noteworthy individuals were recognized by the pope as having lived remarkable lives, and given the title of saints.  While we certainly do want to honor the great things that God has done through His people of all times and places, especially those saints whose lives and ministries are recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures such as the twelve apostles and others who were associated with our Lord, we don’t believe that there is such a thing as purgatory, so we refer to all Christians as saints, because all true Christians will go straight to heaven when they die.

Of course, when you examine yourself, you can’t see the saint in you, at least, if you’re being honest with yourself.  All you see inside yourself is sin and death, from which you cannot set yourself free.  You see envy, you see self-centeredness, you see gossip, you see lust, you see pride, you see greed, you see self-pity, you see failure to keep promises, failure to love your neighbor, failure to be diligent in the use of God’s Word.  You may even remember vividly some pretty gross outbreaks of these things in your life in this world as well.  What you don’t see is what the beatitudes describe.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  If you think you see these things inside yourself, you’re probably not looking at yourself realistically.

But God looks at you differently than you look at yourself.  You see yourself as you exist in this old world.  You see the self that is part of this old life, the old Adam in you who was fatally drowned in the Baptismal water but who still clings to life as long as your life in this old world continues.  That’s why you can’t see the things that Jesus says about you in the Beatitudes.  When God looks at you, he sees His own Son, whose righteousness covers your unrighteousness.  He sees the only One who ever fulfilled the descriptions found in the Beatitudes perfectly.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was poor in spirit, not considering being God himself as something to be bragged about, but made Himself nothing, subjected Himself to our fallen existence out of love for us.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who mourned over the unfaithfulness of the city where His own name had been established so that He could be with His people.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was meek even when falsely accused and convicted of all sorts of crimes and crucified for the sins of others, for the sins of the whole world.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who so hungered and thirsted for the righteousness of the world that He took all of our unrighteousness upon Himself.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who had more mercy and charity and compassion on us poor lost sinners than we can ever imagine or hope to emulate.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was the only human being ever to walk this earth to be truly pure in heart, to be truly free of selfishness or sin.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who made the ultimate peace, the peace between God and man.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was persecuted and killed not just as a sinner, but as the ultimate sinner, and not just in spite of the fact that He was in fact not a sinner, but precisely because of His righteousness.  When God looks at you, He sees Jesus Christ.

And yet, as I said before, what God sees when He looks at us, and what He says about is, is not a lie.  His Word does what it says.  When He sees Christ’s righteousness and says that we are righteous, that Word actually comes to pass.  A clean heart is created in us and a right spirit is renewed within us.  The new you really is accurately described by the Beatitudes.  You can’t see that in yourself (and if you think you can see it in yourself, frankly that’s your old sinful pride talking and so it’s really more evidence of your sinfulness), but others can see it in you.  They see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  And of course, as I said before, God also sees you that way.  Because Christ is not only covering your sin, He’s living in you and working through you.

And so, the Beatitudes are descriptions of God’s holy ones, God’s saints.  They are descriptions of you and me according to our new selves.  Even though you can’t see it, God’s word tells you this.  And His word doesn’t lie, because it creates what it declares.  And that means that the blessings described by the Beatitudes are yours as well.  Yours is the kingdom of heaven.  You shall be given the ultimate comfort, eternal fellowship with your God and creator.  You shall inherit the whole new creation when Christ comes again to raise you up.  You shall be filled with righteousness, indeed, your hunger and thirst are already filled when you eat the body and drink the blood of Him who died so that these things can happen.  You shall obtain the ultimate mercy, the ultimate charity, eternal life itself, where all your needs will be met before you are even aware that the need exists.  You shall be called sons of God.  And, summing it all up, again it is said, yours is the kingdom of heaven.  That’s the inheritance of God’s saints.  That’s where you are already by faith, and where your loved ones who died in the faith are already in spirit.  That’s where you shall live forever, body and soul, into eternity.  Blessed are you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 25, 2014

You Shall Be Free Indeed

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 26, 2014 (Reformation Day, transferred)

Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.  With these words Jesus shatters a whole world full of illusions and self-deception.  Most people think of the ability to commit sin as a matter of freedom and rights.  The more options you have open to you, the more choices you can make, the freer you are.  Especially in areas where Christianity and most other religions for that matter have identified your behavior as wrong.  That’s the way most people think.  To say that sin leads not to freedom but slavery, as Jesus does, seems alien to many people in the world today.

But it’s true.  God created us in such a way that we are to serve Him and our neighbor.  Our hereditary defect of sin, however, causes us to always be looking out for ourselves, to always be trying to figure out what I can get out of any situation.  And the sins we commit themselves capture us.  Habits form.  Even when we no longer want to be the way we are, it’s so much easier to keep making the choices we’ve made before rather than break those habits.  Even when we know its wrong, even when we know it will be hurtful to ourselves or to our relationships with each other or our God, we find ourselves doing the same things, committing the same sins, over and over again, often without even realizing we did it until after the fact.  Sin enslaves us.  It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when the consequences catch up, they catch up with a vengeance, and usually only after the sin has become habitual and very difficult to resist.  Especially when you consider that even outward righteousness doesn’t really free you from this slavery.  Even the Pharisees, the most outwardly righteous people who lived in Jesus’ day, are slaves to sin, because their behavior shows that their decisions are dominated by it.  The fear of sinning which causes a person to follow an overly-complex set of man-made rules and regulations is itself a form of slavery, and it was also this kind of slavery from which Jesus came to free us, and against which Martin Luther later fought so hard in terms of the Roman papacy of his day.  The Pharisees followed their complex system because they were afraid of sinning.  The medieval church also created that kind of fear in the hearts of the people, as we can see from the amount of money they were willing to shell out for indulgences.  A person who is constantly afraid of sinning is dominated by sin just as much as is someone who is constantly giving in to the temptation.  He is simply not free.  And besides, often this extreme fear of sinning also causes people not to do good when they have the opportunity, for fear of sinning.  Fear of sin paralyzes a person and causes him to sin by not doing what he should do, because he’s afraid of sinning by doing what he shouldn’t.  And this only makes the cycle worse.

Over against the slavery to sin, both the slavery of indulgence and the slavery of fear of sin which leads to the sale of indulgences, Christ stands and promises to set us free.  “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  He is the one who can set us free, for He as God has authority over sin, death, and the devil which have enslaved us.  He is the Son of God the Father, and as the Son he can free those who are slaves.  The power of sin is not broken when we try our hardest to not sin.  The power of sin is broken when the sins we have committed, and those we will yet commit, are forgiven and no longer held against us.  This breaks the fear and the despair which lead us either into works-righteousness and paralysis or deeper into the addiction to actual outward sins.  Forgiveness carries with it the power of the Holy Spirit to amend our sinful lives, and to live as God’s free children rather than as hired servants in His world.

We have become the adopted children of God’s house because the Son of God became one of us and became our brother.  His innocent life, his suffering and death, and His resurrection and ascension set the pattern for our life, death, resurrection, and eternal life.  Where Christ has gone there we shall go, and in fact we have already gone through those things in Holy Baptism.  We already in this world partake of the feast of Heaven in the body and blood of Christ Jesus.  We already have a life that is free from sin, though while we yet live in this world this is hidden underneath the old sinful nature and the old troubles, pains and hurts.  But even while we are troubled by temptations and by guilt from our sins, and even while we suffer and must put up with life in this sinful world, we are already living the new life which Christ has given us.  We have already died and been raised with Christ, and this freedom gives us the ability to live as God’s free people in this sinful world.

This is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was about: not a political freedom, not a freedom from government authority, not a freedom to do whatever we want, and not even the noble freedoms we enjoy as Americans, but freedom from sin, freedom from condemnation, freedom from hell.  The Gospel, which grants us this freedom, is what the Reformation was all about, and it is still what the Lutheran Church is all about.  The Festival of the Reformation is not just a celebration of an old historical event or the Lutheran equivalent of a patriotic party.  The Reformation is not about bashing other Christians, even though we must recognize and clearly point out that many other Christian church bodies are indeed wrong about what this freedom means for us as well as about certain other things the Bible teaches.  The Reformation is not even about the church war between the Lutherans and the Pope, even though it’s true that many of the concerns Luther raised in his day are still a concern to us Lutherans today.  Instead, the Reformation is a commemoration of the larger war against sin, death, and the devil which was won by Jesus Christ by dying on the cross and rising again for our justification.  Sin, death, and the devil no longer enslave you.  The Son has set you free, and so you are free indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 18, 2014

God's Image and Inscription

Sermon on Matthew 22:15-22
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 19, 2014 (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

The Pharisees and the Herodians were not honestly seeking to learn from Jesus by asking the question they asked.  They were trying to trap Him.  These, in fact, were people who almost never spent time with one another.  The Pharisees wanted to bring back the glory days when Jerusalem, under king Solomon, ruled the known world.  The Herodians were those loyal to the Roman puppet king Herod, allied with the hated tax collectors, of all people.  The fact that they even showed up together was a huge, flashing red light that something wasn’t right here.  They make it even worse by prefacing their question with all sorts of compliments which already make Him sound dangerous to both sides.  And then they purposely asked a question for which both answers were problematic.  The question is a trap.  Either answer is bad for him.  It’s like the question, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”  Either a yes or a no answer is bad for the person, because the assumption behind the question is wrong.  He either upsets the people, who think He’s the one that will bring back the greatness of the kingdom, or He openly advocates rebellion and gets Himself put to death as a traitor.  Of course, that’s the accusation that got Him put to death only a few days later anyway, but if He’d fallen into the trap here the accusation would actually have been true.

But Jesus gets out of the trap by pointing out that it was Caesar who issued the money in the first place.  His face and his inscription are on it, and so it really belongs to him anyway.  Since Caesar issued the money, he has a right to demand it back.  But, by the same token, we are also to render to God the things that belong to Him.  And that means that there are certain boundary lines Caesar should not cross.  If Caesar demands that his subjects do things that are against God, those subjects have the duty to disobey him, even though they still obey him when his commands are within the sphere of authority God has given him.  Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Now, that’s not to say that any one particular form or government enjoys God’s special favor.  We happen to live in a constitutional republic (sometimes mistakenly referred to as a democracy).  All our human rulers swear to uphold a higher ruler than themselves, known as the Constitution.  And, since the highest law of our land guarantees us the freedom of religion, we do give thanks that God has graciously allowed us to be relatively free of religious persecution here.  This is a good thing.  But obviously Jesus wasn’t talking about the United States here; it would be some 1800 years before our Constitution would be written.  He was talking about the hated oppressor Caesar.  Every government, even ones that we would regard as oppressive and horrible, are also used by God to keep peace and order in society.  Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was terrible, but He was an equal-opportunity oppressor.  He was a Muslim, but his second in command was a Roman Catholic.  As a secular ruler, he was very effective from keeping the Islamic majority in Iraq from killing or driving out the Christians in that country.  The sort of thing ISIS is doing right now is what results when you remove that stabilizing force.  Even Communist regimes keep the roads paved and the electricity flowing, which are blessings even for those who have to worship in secret.    And so governments are to be respected, precisely because it is God who is keeping peace and order in society for our benefit through them.  But they belong to this world, as do money and the things that it can by.  They and their money also belong to God, and so they are to be respected, but only when they keep to their own sphere, that is, the things that belong to this old world.  And, by the way, this includes not just rulers of nations, but everyone who has authority in one way or another, beginning with parents, and including bosses and whoever else has a claim on our time and resources in this world.

But there’s more here than just a clever way out of an attempted trap set for our Lord.  The coin they brought to Him had the image of Caesar and the inscription of Caesar stamped upon it.  And so, because it bore Caesar’s image and His inscription, it was Caesar’s.  It belonged to this world, just as Caesar does.  But how do we know what is God’s?  The same way.  By God’s image and God’s inscription.  And where do we find that image of God?  What things bear the image of God?  We learn from Genesis that mankind was created in the image of God.  This means that everything we are and everything we have is God’s, because we bear His image within ourselves.  This isn’t just a matter of giving to Church or to charity, although one way we confess the fact that we are His is by giving generously to the Church and to those who need our help in our midst.  This is a matter of confessing that everything we are and everything we have is His.  There is no part of our life, no aspect of our being, that He does not claim.  His image is upon all of it.  We are created in His image.
Of course, mankind lost that image when he fell into sin.  We have all inherited that sin from Adam and so are separated from our Creator.  This is why He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die and rise again so that our old sinful nature could be drowned and die in Holy Baptism, and a new man come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  In Holy Baptism a new name was inscribed on your hearts, the name of Jesus Christ.  Christ claimed you again as His own, so that you could live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.  You were recreated, reborn, in that font, so that now you have once again the image of God in you, not only in your heart but in your whole being and in the living out of your life.  Where do we find that which is God’s?  Where His image and inscription are.  Where are that image and inscription?  On our hearts and in our lives.

We belong to God.  Yes, that is a great responsibility, but it is also a great comfort.  Part of the duty of the government is to watch over and protect us from those who would hurt us.  But the police and the sheriff’s deputies can’t be everywhere at once, and even though in our nation we also have the right to keep and bear arms to defend ourselves, we also can’t be everywhere at once.  Sometimes our fellow sinners are still able to take advantage of us, to rob us or even rape or murder us.  But God’s vigilance over us never fails.  Nothing happens that He does not know about and use for our benefit.  Even the ultimate evil that could happen to us, namely death, is now the gate of life for us.  And how do we know we have eternal life?  We have God’s image and His inscription.  We belong to Him.  And He will defend and keep what is His own.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 11, 2014

LWML Sunday

Sermon on Luke 11:14-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 12, 2014 (LWML Sunday)

“Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Most Christians, including many Lutherans, would paraphrase this passage from the end of today’s Gospel in this way: “If you hear God’s word and do what it says, God will bless you.”  But a more accurate paraphrase of what Jesus actually said here would go something like this: “Treasuring God’s Word in your heart and mind, will be a blessing to you.”  On the surface, those two paraphrases don’t sound all that different.  But really, there is a huge difference there.  The first version emphasizes doing what God says, and really doesn’t have much at all to do with what God did for us.  Not to mention the fact that in this old world, doing what God says doesn’t always have any connection to the sorts of blessings we may or may not have here.  There are plenty of people who live corrupt, dishonest, and downright sinful lives who have huge houses, fancy cars, and so on.  And there are many outwardly righteous people who barely manage to scrape by.  The world hasn’t ever been fair since Adam and Eve, and it never will be until Judgment Day.  And so the idea that if we follow His Law He will bless us, just doesn’t hold water.

God’s blessings come from treasuring the Word of God in our hearts, like Mary did.  The word keep here actually means to defend, to regard as important, to treasure something. The Word we are to treasure isn’t just God’s Law (in fact, God’s Law isn’t even the first and foremost thing we are to treasure).  The most important thing we are to treasure in our hearts is the Gospel, the good news that God sent His Son to be the only possible sacrifice for the sin of the world, the only sacrifice which is well-pleasing to God, a sweet aroma rising to Him.

And that brings us to the theme that the LWML has chosen for this day, based on the second verse of our epistle lesson.  It is Jesus who offers the perfect sacrifice for our sins.  His righteousness, given to us in the washing of regeneration and renewal, is what covers our sins.  To borrow the metaphor from today’s Epistle, the sweet aroma of His sacrifice is what covers over the stench of our sin.  It’s only because of His sacrifice that anything we do could possibly be pleasing to Him.  Outside of Christ’s sacrifice, we might do good things that help our neighbor, but God isn’t impressed.  All our righteousness is filthy rags.  It’s only when the white robe of Christ’s righteousness, given us in Holy Baptism, covers our sin that anything we do can possibly please Him.  After all, believers’ righteousness isn’t their own.  It’s only Jesus who is pleasing to His Father.  And that’s true not just of His earthly life, but of the life He lives in, with and under our lives here on earth.  It’s not we who do good works, it’s Jesus.

And that brings us to the LWML, for whose work for missions and human care we give thanks today.  We do thank God for the many ways in which this organization has helped any number of missionary and charitable projects conducted by various elements of our church body.  They’re very good at what they do.  But their work doesn’t please God either, unless those works are done in faith.  The LWML’s work isn’t pleasing to God by itself, no matter how much good they may do.  It’s only when Christ’s righteousness covers their sin, too, that anything they do is pleasing to Him.  While we do give thanks to God for their work, we dare never forget that nothing we or they do helps us before His throne.  Only Christ can do that.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Rent

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 5, 2014 (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Obviously the tenants were being stupid.  How could they possibly think that by committing murder, murder of the owner’s own son, no less, that they would inherit anything from the owner?  Who in his right mind would think that by beating up or killing the guy that came around to collect the rent check that they would become owners of the apartment?  It just doesn’t make any sense at all.  Of course they would be evicted.  And not only would they be evicted, they’d be thrown into prison, and possibly (depending on what state they lived in) sentenced to capital punishment.  What kind of stupidity is this?

It’s the kind of stupidity that comes from the same place in our hearts as the place where Eve’s idea that she could be like God came from.  God is the owner of everything.  He is the one who made it all, and so He’s the one that gets to decide what to do with it all.  We’re merely tenants when it comes to this world.  Even the stuff we legally own from the perspective of this world and its social order, isn’t really ours, because even the social order that determines what we do and do not own, is something God made.  We’re strangers here.  We only inhabit our homes, use our cars, and even use our own bodies for a short period of time.

But we like to think we own these things, don’t we.  The classical definition of the word “property” is that you get to determine what happens to something.  If you are the one who determines whether to sell or keep something, whether to give it away or not, how much you’re going to sell it for if you do decide to sell it, and so on, that thing is your property.  And in this old world, that idea is very important, because it keeps people from abusing each other by simply taking what they need without regard for the needs of the original owner.  The Seventh Commandment has something to say about that.  But where we get into trouble is when we start to apply the idea of ownership to our relationship with God.

We don’t own our own bodies, God does.  We don’t own our own stuff, God does.  We don’t even own our own reputations.  God owns all of that stuff.  And we don’t like that.  After all, there are plenty of things we could do if God didn’t have a claim on our bodies and lives.  In fact, we do that stuff anyway, don’t we?  Disobedience and hatred for those in authority, murder, lust, theft, gossip, are all things we do, as if we owned our own bodies and possessions and could do whatever we wanted with them.  What’s worse, is that we think we own our relationship with God Himself, as if we could get Him to do what we wanted.

But that’s not the case.  The vineyard isn’t ours.  We’re disobedient, hateful, and lazy tenants.  When this is pointed out to us, our old sinful natures rise up and want to kill those who point it out.  Some even get so mad at God that they wish He didn’t exist (and that’s what most–but not all–modern atheists are, by the way, not people who objectively believe He doesn’t exist, but people who resent His existence and and wish He weren’t there).  We don’t want to pay the rent, because it would mean admitting that someone else owns what we think is ours.  And so we kill the Son.  We are the ones who, by our rebelliousness drove the nails into His hands and feet, the crown into His head, and the sword into His side.

But when it comes to our relationship with God, and the fact that He is our landlord and we merely tenants, our response to Him becomes even more bizarre.  Yes, we try to kill Him and pretend that we owned ourselves and our stuff.  But what rent is it that He demands?  Most would say that He is looking for good works.  Most, even among Christians, would say that He is looking for works of charity.  Or that He’s looking for a pure life in which we, by our own willpower, resist temptations to sin.  Some would even say, as silly as it sounds, that God is looking for the good work of saying the Our Father, the Creed, and the Hail Mary a certain number of times.  And it is true that God doesn’t want us to break His commandments, as much for our own well-being as because He told us to do these things.

But these good works, by themselves, are not the rent which God demands of us.  The “rent” He would have us show is very easy and very light.  In fact, it’s something He creates inside of us.  It’s not something we can or should bring forth in and of ourselves.  Why we would rather kill God than pay the “rent” He is looking for is completely absurd.  The “rent” He demands of us is simply that we believe and trust in Him as the one who forgives our selfishness.  And even this trust is something that He did, that He created.  He was the one who created in us a clean heart and renewed a right spirit within us.  He is the one who put us on that cross that we used to try to kill Him.  He is the one who made us into creatures who trust in Him.  He is the one who sustains and nourishes that new self by giving us His own body and His own blood, which we nailed to the cross, as our heavenly food.  The “rent” he demands is that we receive from Him the good gifts He gives.  In other words, it’s not really rent at all in the sense in which we use this term.  What God expects is what He Himself gives.  We pay our “rent” by getting gifts from Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pause

For various reasons I won't get into here, this blog will be taking a sabbatical for a while.  Please stay tuned.