Sunday, July 31, 2011

Pentecost 7 (Proper 13), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 31, 2011 (Proper 13, Series A)

Following Jesus has consequences. Confessing Him in the midst of a world that would rather not hear it, including perhaps some of our own friends and neighbors who would rather not face the questions of sin and death and salvation and eternal life, all that has consequences. It sometimes means making decisions that run counter to what common sense would tell us is best for us. It means sometimes getting ourselves into situations from which there isn’t necessarily an easy way out, humanly speaking. It means sometimes setting ourselves up to be persecuted and slandered by the world around us. In some times and places, it has even meant the death of Christians, or at least arrest and imprisonment. Certainly in recent times the doctrine that all religions do not worship the same god, but that the only way to the Father is through Jesus Christ, has become a highly unpopular idea in our own nation, with those who agree with the position of the Scriptures being compared to the Taliban and other sorts of violent religious extremists by some commentators. And even apart from criticism or hardship that comes from outside ourselves, we also have to deal with the energy-draining battle inside ourselves, the battle against temptation and sin and carelessness regarding God’s Commandments, and this too takes its toll on us.

For the crowd on the occasion recorded in our text, following Jesus meant getting themselves into a situation they didn’t plan for in terms of their own personal food supplies. Of course, unlike some of the situations I mentioned before, this wasn’t a matter of either following Jesus or denying their faith in Him; if they had followed Him only one or two days and then went back home before their food ran out, no one would accuse them of denying the faith. Nevertheless, to these people hearing Jesus’ preaching was so important that they were willing to risk starving to death rather than missing what He had to say. Jesus was the Messiah whom the prophets had promised for centuries. He was the One whose coming was the entire point of the Old Testament, the One whose birth was the entire reason for ancient Israel to exist in the first place. And He taught with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees whom the people were accustomed to hearing. And so, even though it wasn’t a matter of either following Him out into the desert or denying Him, we still can’t blame these people for putting themselves in this situation in order to hear and learn what the Messiah had to teach them. In fact, we really need to seriously consider if we measure up to their level of commitment to hearing and following Jesus Christ, or whether we in our day have become too soft and complacent for that.

What Jesus says when He looks out at this crowd who had risked their lives coming out to hear him is a statement that could form the theme, not just of this text or of this Sunday in the Church Year, but of all Christian preaching in general. “I have compassion on the multitude.” Jesus has compassion. To have compassion means to be aware of others’ distress and to desire to alleviate it. Literally it means to “suffer with” them. After all, that’s what He came to earth to do: to relieve the distress that we are in because of our own sin and the sin of everyone else in the world around us by forgiving us that sin and taking us to a new, eternal life where sin and its effects no longer trouble us. And what’s more, he does that precisely by “suffering with” us, by living our life and dying the death we deserved. Jesus’ compassion on all of us, and on the whole world, is the entire point of what we come here to celebrate each Sunday.

But that’s not all that easy to remember, is it? After all, when push comes to shove, the devil, the world, and our own old sinful natures are right there, tempting us to see only the trouble and the hardship we endure, and to forget about the salvation and eternal life that await us after our struggle is over. The temptation then is to give up and give in. Eternal life seems so far away, and the troubles come with following our Lord so near. It is then that remembering that our Lord is right along with us is so important. He’s not just awaiting us at the end of our journey, He’s here all along the way to sustain and uphold us. Even though He might not always do a miracle to meet our physical needs like feeding 5,000 people with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish, He is constantly doing miracles to support our faith in Him and eternal life. Every Sunday His body is present in bread and His blood is present in wine for Christians to eat and to drink, and further, His body and blood are present on thousands of altars simultaneously, and given to millions of Christians. And no matter how many partake of Him Sunday after Sunday, His body and blood are never used up, just as the bread and the fish were not used up no matter how many ate of them.

And in fact He does also provide for our physical needs as we follow Him as well. Usually it’s not in the form of miracles, but even the ordinary means of making a living and getting our daily bread are actually means that God uses to provide for us. Even such simple things as a helping hand from a neighbor, a kind word in the midst of a difficult time, are reminders to us of Jesus’ compassion on us. They are reminders to us of the fact that where we belong and where we are going, none of the troubles we experience now, neither those that are simply part of life in this old world, nor those that come upon us because we are following Jesus Christ, none of these will ever bother us again.

And so Jesus has compassion on us, especially in those times when our problems and troubles are a direct result of the fact that we’re following Him. He strengthens and nourishes our faith in Him by His Word and by His body and blood, which is a miracle even greater than the one we read about in today’s Gospel. And He provides for our needs even when it seems like He won’t or can’t do so. Sometimes the way He provides for us is by taking us to that place where we will never hunger nor thirst again, and very often it is by the ordinary things He gives us in this life. And He uses our friends and neighbors as well, both to remind us of the Word we have heard and the Sacrament we have received, as well as to provide us with more ordinary means of facing life in the world in terms of daily bread. Our God has compassion on us. He suffers with us and for us. And because He suffered for us, our sufferings will have an end. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pentecost 6 (Proper 12), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 13:44-52
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 24, 2011 (Proper 12, Series A)

The first two parables in today’s Gospel both portray for us men who find one thing that is so important or valuable to them that they give up everything they have to get that one thing. Now, in today’s society, surrounded as we are by all sorts of “stuff,” it’s hard to imagine anything being so valuable that someone would want to sell everything he has for it. But that is, in fact, what the kingdom of heaven is compared to here: something so valuable that it is worth giving up everything a person has in order to get it. And that does make sense. After all, the kingdom of heaven will last forever, while we only spend a few decades here. Nothing in this old world will last forever. What doesn’t rust or wear out or break down will be left behind when we ourselves rust and wear out and break down. As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

But what God demands of us is not just that the “stuff” we will have in eternity be more important than the “stuff” we have here. What He demands in the First Commandment is that He be more important to us than everything and everyone else. After all, He is the One who made us. He is the One who gave us our very lives, and still sustains us, not to mention that He created and gave us everyone and everything we have here in this life. And the most important part of eternity is not just that we will have perfect bodies not subject to illness or infirmity, nor that we will have all our loved ones who died in the faith with us, nor that the things we have will not be subject to rust or decay or manufacturing defects (leaving aside the fact that we have so little understanding of eternity that we really have no idea what “things” we might have there anyway). The most important thing about eternity is that we will be united with our Creator and share in the love and fellowship that exists within the Trinity Himself, because we will be, and already are by faith, members of the Second Person of that Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem, of course, is that here in this old world we can’t really see any of that. We can’t see or measure what lies ahead for us on the other side of the grave. For that matter, we can’t even really prove from a scientific perspective that God exists, let alone that He is Triune, that He loves His creation, and that the historical Man named Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, His eternal Son sent into the world to redeem us and bring us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Granted, the very existence of the world strongly suggests the existence of some sort of creator, but who He is and how He sees us and what happens after we die is a complete mystery apart from the Holy Scriptures, while the people around us in this life, and the things we have, such as houses and cars and food and clothing, are very real. Thus the temptation to disregard eternity in favor of what we can see and feel here and now is very strong, and it’s a temptation we give in to more often than not. How many of us are being completely honest when we sing that line in “A Mighty Fortress:” “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.” If you think you can, with your whole heart, pray that line honestly, you are simply fooling yourself. Nobody is completely free of the idolatry that attaches us to this old world.

That’s why God had to come to us: by nature we can’t free ourselves of this old world’s entanglements. That’s why God the Son had to condescend to be born among us, become one of us, live our life in this old world, suffer and die our death. As far as anyone could tell, we were like a vacant field with no special value to anyone. He died for us while we were still sinners. He gave up everything for us. Only He could see the hidden treasure, the new man in Christ, recreated in His image, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

So, which is it? Are these two parables about how nothing should be more important to us than God, or about how nothing is more important to Him than us? I’d say the answer is both. After all, we can only love God because He first loved us. We are only capable of giving up everything for Him because He gave up everything for us. It’s only because He redeemed us while we were still sinners that we can see, and obtain the treasure that is eternal life. He bought us so that now we can see Him where He has hidden Himself. An ordinary field with buried treasure doesn’t look like anything special. Neither does an ordinary man standing in front of church on Sunday morning. Neither does ordinary water poured on someone’s head. Neither do ordinary unleavened wafers and wine. But there’s treasure hidden there, too. The forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are hidden here, but revealed to those who have faith in God’s Word. Nothing is more important than that. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pentecost 5 (Proper 11), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 17, 2011 (Proper 11, Series A)

Why is there evil in the world? Why do bad things happen to good people? If God is good, and He is all-powerful, then there shouldn’t be such a thing as evil, should there? Why isn’t life fair? Why do good people so often suffer, while bad people so often prosper and do well for themselves? Questions like these have occupied theologians and philosophers since the beginning of history. These questions have been wrestled with, poked, prodded, and pondered over in every generation. And, of course, it’s not just the scholarly theologians and philosophers up in their ivory towers who have pondered these questions either. The everyday, common, garden-variety, working-class theologians and philosophers such as you and I have pondered them at great length, too. After all, for those of us who aren’t in ivory towers, these are not abstract questions. They are very real and personal. We see the evil that goes along with life in this world every day, all around us. Often it has had an impact on our own lives, where someone who has cheated, lied, or stolen has gotten the better of us by doing so. Or when a random accident claims the life of a bright and talented young person. Or when we who worship God faithfully and receive His body and blood Sunday after Sunday must struggle to make ends meet while many with sinful and disgusting lifestyles get rich and live lives of luxury. These questions are not mere abstract academic exercises; they are very real. Evil is real, and it is in the world around us, and also within our own hearts.

But if God is all-powerful, why doesn’t He do something about it? How can an all-powerful God who claims to be good and just and righteous simply stand by while there is suffering and injustice and wars and persecutions and disease and poverty? Why doesn’t He simply wave His hand and get rid of the evil in the world? Why does He let it go on? This form of the question is similar to what the slaves asked their master in today’s Gospel lesson. “Do you want us then to go and gather the weeds up?” The master’s answer is surprising. “No, I don’t. Let them grow together until the harvest, and then we will gather all the plants and separate them out.” The reason he gives for this surprising command? “If you try to uproot the tares, you will probably damage the wheat as you do so.” The fact is, evil is not just something that exists “out there” in the world. All the evil in the world, all the suffering, pain, injustice, poverty, sorrow, and so forth, is a result of the corruption of men’s hearts, and that includes your heart and my heart. The worst and most decadent sinner is only showing forth the symptoms of the same corruption that we were born with as well. The reason why God doesn’t just simply destroy all the evil and unfairness in the world is because if He did so, we would also be caught up in the destruction, because we, as sinners, are part of it.

This is the reason why, by the way, the Lutheran Church does not have as one of its primary goals the reform of the society around us. There are many other Christian Churches and individuals who see it as their duty, precisely as Churches, to conform the society around them to God’s moral laws. There have even been those recently who have argued that everything that was punished by capital punishment in the Old Testament, including believing differently than what the Bible teaches, should be grounds for capital punishment among us today. The medieval Roman Catholic Church followed this principle as well; being excommunicated from the Church for a moral or doctrinal lapse also meant that one would face execution or exile. But this is not to be a primary goal of the Christian Church. After all, if we started hunting down all who were morally impure, sooner or later we would be hunting down ourselves, because all of us have fallen into some sort of sin at one point or another in our lives. And so that is not how God wishes to deal with the fact that there is evil in the world, nor is it how He wants us to deal with it either.

By the way, I need to mention that some have used this parable as a reason why the Church should not exercise Church discipline. However, that is a misunderstanding of this parable. As Jesus Himself points out, the field in which the wheat and tares are growing together is the world, not the Church. It is true that we don’t seek civil penalties against those who deny our faith or who live in ways which are sinful but legal in our country. In fact, we don’t even seek civil penalties as a Church against those who live in ways that are illegal in our country. That’s the government’s job, not the Church’s job; it may be our job as citizens, especially those whose vocation it is to enforce the law, but it is not our job as Church members. But at the same time we don’t simply allow public, unrepentant sinners to continue as members of the Church in good standing, either. This is not done out of a desire to “purify” the Church, but rather out of love for them so that they may be able to see how serious their sin is, and repent and believe the Gospel. We don’t go out of our way to seek out “sinners” among the Church, nor do we solicit rumor-mongering, but where a sin is public and ongoing and the sinner is unrepentant of it, we need to let the person know, not only in words but also in actions, that if they are not repentant of their sins the Gospel does not apply to them, because the Gospel is for poor, miserable sinners, not stubborn, prideful, unrepentant sinners.

In any case, God does not wish to destroy all the evil in the world the way we might think He should, because in doing so He would end up destroying all of humanity, including you and me. Evil and good are so enmeshed in one another, even within our own hearts, that they cannot be separated while we remain in this life. Even our good works are often damnable sins, because we do them for the wrong reason. We do something that is outwardly in keeping with God’s Law, and then what do we think? “Hey, I’m a pretty good person! Hey, look at me, God!” And by thinking that, and we all end up thinking that when we do something right, we have just broken the First Commandment by praising ourselves rather than God. And so there is no way to separate the evil from the good in us without putting us as a whole to death.

But there does come a time when this will happen. There will come a time, of God’s own choosing, when the evil in us and in the world will be eradicated. Either at the time of our own deaths, or when Christ comes again and this old sinful world is entirely destroyed. The harvest time will come. In fact, in a certain sense, this has already happened. Jesus has already destroyed the sinfulness of humanity by taking it to the cross and killing it in his own body. And it was killed in us when we were baptized into His death through water and the Word. What happens when we die and then when Christ comes again and we are resurrected is merely the fulfillment of what has already happened to us.

The fact that the weeds will eventually be separated from the wheat is a warning for secure and impenitent sinners, but it is a comfort for us. You see, we will eventually be gathered into our heavenly Father’s barns, there to live forever in His presence, free from all sorrows and pains and hurts and death. The question of evil in the world will not trouble us, because there will be no evil in the world. But we can’t see it now. What we see with our human eyes is the pain and suffering around us, and the sin and malice in our hearts. Thus faith is needed, and faith is only given through the Word and the Sacraments. You can’t see it with your eyes, but you can hear it with your ears. Your sins are forgiven. The tares in your own heart are removed. Take and eat, this is My body; take, drink, this is My blood. Our Lord accepts us as His wheat, feeds us with His heavenly food, and joins us together with those who have already been gathered and are celebrating the heavenly thanksgiving banquet in His heavenly storehouse even now. You are His wheat, and you will be gathered into His barns at the end, there to praise and live before Him eternally. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pentecost 4 (Proper 10), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 10, 2011 (Proper 10, Series A)

It may seem stupid to fling the seed randomly at every type of soil instead of carefully testing the soil by doing market surveys and using other techniques to find out where the best soil is. But it’s the only thing we can do in the Christian church. Despite what it seems like to human reason, there is no way to tell whether a particular person, a particular neighborhood, a particular region of the country will react in any of the four ways we see in our text. Often it’s tempting for church officials to “invest” the mission dollars where the money is, in growing suburbs populated by those who have money to spare and who would seem therefore to be better able to support their congregation and the church body to which it belongs. Of course, that ends up being a way of making decisions based on what the church can get out of people rather than the love for people and concern for their eternal well-being which Jesus would have us exhibit. But apart from the question of selfishness, the fact is, all of the sociology in the world is useless in figuring out who will and will not bear the fruit of salvation. After all, the fruit we are looking for isn’t an externally healthy church (though that’s certainly helpful). It isn’t a lot of mission dollars for the District or Synod (though that can be an important way we as a congregation give thanks for the blessings God has given us). The fruit we are looking for is souls in heaven. And that’s something you can’t predict or analyze with human reason. Jesus’ statement about those who hear yet don’t hear means that in every plot of ground there will be some of each of the four categories. And the seed can often bear fruit in places that look to human wisdom as completely unlikely and wrong. Indeed, those whose lifestyles have been overtly contrary to God’s will are often more receptive to the Gospel of forgiveness than are those who think of themselves as good, upstanding citizens. And so instead of engaging in marketing tactics and all the other nonsense that so many refer to as evangelism in our day, we simply preach the Word and administer the sacraments here on Sunday morning, and we confess our faith to those we encounter in our lives. Whether it be in our day-to-day business or in some intentional outreach project, we still simply confess what we have heard. That’s how God’s kingdom grows even in the most unlikely places.

The next question that this parable raises in our minds, of course, is the question about us as individuals. What kind of soil am I? Am I the hard soil that doesn’t even let the Word sink in but lets the devil snatch it away? Am I the rocky soil which, even though the Word begins growing in my heart, it is not allowed to get very deep roots and so it doesn’t survive long? Am I the thorn-infested soil that simply has too many other things going on around me to allow my faith to grow and mature? What kind of soil am I? This question is, of course, a natural question to ask for anyone who is concerned with their own salvation. And it may be helpful for us to see if any of these things is true of us so that we can fight against these things in ourselves. But it can also be a dangerous question, because if I conclude that in some ways I’m like the hard path or the rocky or thorny soil, then I might give in to despair because I can’t hope to be saved. It’s too easy to look at these four categories and assume that everybody falls into only one of the four, and that’s that.

Fortunately it’s not that simple. All of us fall into all of these four categories. We are by nature sinful and unclean, and we are constantly bombarded with the attacks of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh as we hear the Word of God. According to our old sinful nature we are hard-packed, rocky, and thorn-infested all at the same time. But according to the new person that has been recreated in us by Christ, we are good soil, which will produce the hundredfold fruit of everlasting life.

The hard-packed soil didn’t even let the seed in. Sometimes the Word simply doesn’t make it into our minds and hearts at all. Sometimes we think that we are too busy to stay and listen to God’s Word in the first place. We don’t even come to where it is being preached at all. Or we come and we doubt the truthfulness of what we are told. Or the preacher says something in his sermon that hits us the wrong way and we tune out the rest of what he has to say because of anger. Or we are simply too tired to stay awake during the preaching of the Word. These kinds of things can happen to any one of us, and in this way the devil snatches the Word of God away from us and prevents it from taking root in us that day.

The rocky soil allowed the seed to start growing, but it didn’t allow a good, stable root system to develop. We are always tempted to base our confidence in God in things that are shallow. Emotions such as feelings of happiness and warmth are a good thing; they are a good response to the Christian message. But they are shallow and they can change. The true joy and peace that Christ gives are not the same thing as warm feelings. The true joy and peace of Christ are still ours even when we don’t feel particularly happy or particularly peaceful. Too many people in our world think that they have lost their faith because they don’t feel the same way about God or about going to Church as they did when they were younger. And so when things in this world go badly for them they don’t think that Christ is still there for them to rely upon. The world is a cruel enemy of the Christian, and often things do go badly for people precisely because they do believe in Christ. Unless faith is grounded in something deeper than feelings and emotions, it’s not going to be able to stand up to the blistering heat of the world’s attacks against Christianity. Only God’s Word itself can create the truly deep roots that a Christian needs to survive even when everything in the world seems to be going against him and his shallow emotions no longer hold him upright steady in the faith.

The thorny soil allowed the seed to grow, but then it cut off the light that it needed to continue to grow and bear fruit. Our old sinful flesh pays attention to all sorts of other things besides the Word of God. We are by nature easily distracted from God. Even perfectly innocent and good things can distract us from God’s Word. Things like our work, our hobbies, sports, caring for our families, and the desire to sleep in at least one day a week can distract us from continuing to bask in the light of God’s Son. Our old sinful flesh wants to keep our energies away from sustaining the faith that has been planted in us.

But God has recreated our hearts. His Word acts as a plow to break up the hard soil, to turn up the rocks and remove them, and to destroy the thorn bushes. The rocky soil may not bear fruit one season, but the roots that the plants tried to put down will eventually over the course of the years break up the rocks and turn them into good soil. The same thing is true of the hard path. Plants and even big, strong trees can grow even in hills composed largely of flint and limestone. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh are beat down and killed by the dying and rising again of Christ our Lord. He is the good soil, because ultimately He is the one who bears the fruit of eternal life. His good soil is spread upon our poor soil through Baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s supper, just as good, black dirt is often put on a garden or a flower bed to make up for the poor soil already there. In this way he remakes us in His image. We become part of Him. And through Him we will become a hundred times more than we are right now, because we will be reborn, perfect, on the last day when He comes to harvest us and take us into the barns of His eternal presence and joy. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pentecost 3 (Proper 9), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 3, 2011 (Proper 9, Series A)

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Um, really? Doesn’t He also say that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves? Doesn’t He say that we will endure suffering and even death for His name? That we can expect to be treated by the world the same way He was treated? That the road to eternal life is the narrow one that only a few find? That (as last Sunday’s Gospel teaches) He came not to bring peace but a sword? How can He say that His burden is light? When you consider all that becoming a disciple of Jesus entails, it doesn’t look all that easy or light at all.

That is, unless you compare it to the alternative. Every religion in which man’s relationship to his god is dependent upon what man does, involves a hellish merry-go-round of good works. In Hindu societies, it is forbidden to give charity to those of a lower caste than you, because if you help them to much you will mess with their karma and they may end up reincarnated as a lower form rather than a higher one. Which, of course, means that life is incredibly hard for those of the “untouchable” caste. Of course, we are all aware of how harsh many of the different Muslim sects can be in terms of what they demand of their followers. And many of the ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of the Canaanites or even the Greeks and the Romans, involved horrific rituals, sometimes involving self-mutilation or even human sacrifice.

But even within Christianity, when Christians misunderstand their religion as one where our works are the important part of our relationship with God, the merry-go-round is there too. Luther pretty much destroyed his health during his early adulthood when he was trying to find assurance that God was pleased with him by following the monastic regimen of works and fasting and daily devotion and prayer. He scrubbed and scrubbed the floors, symbolical of his own heart; he prayed and prayed, and still it wasn’t good enough. And many Protestant groups aren’t much better. Many Christians spend their entire lives unsure of their standing with God. They make a decision for Him, they dedicate their lives to Him, they promise their sincere intention to make Jesus the Lord of their life as well as their Savior, but it never quite works out that way. The pet sins are still there. The doubts are still there. And so they make another decision for Christ, and they’re really, really sincere this time, since the last one apparently didn’t “take.” But the pet sin rears its ugly head again, whether it’s a tendency toward anger and rage, or gossip, or covetousness, or alcoholism, or lust, or simply a tendency to be lazy and sleep in on Sunday mornings. Many modern “evangelical” churches teach that consecrating your life to Jesus will give you a victory over those sins, but they never seem to go away completely. And so, since the person apparently wasn’t sincere enough or consecrated enough, he goes through the whole process again, and again, and again. But he’s still imperfect, still a sinner, and he still doesn’t really know what his standing is before God, and often he ends up spiritually exhausted and willing to give up on the whole “religion” thing entirely.

A couple of years ago, the Willow Creek Association published a survey of church members who attend many of the mega-churches that are members of that association and strive to follow the example of Willow Creek Church, a mega-church located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. It was called the “Reveal Now” study. The startling finding, not only at Willow Creek itself, but at just about all of the other “seeker-sensitive” churches that follow its example, was that it was those who were considered most mature in the faith, the ones who were the most active in the programs and activities of their church, who were also the ones most likely to be seriously thinking about leaving the church entirely. They were simply burned out. What their church was giving them was a steady diet of law, law, and more law, and they were trying and failing to keep all of it, and the only encouragement they ever got was that God would help them to do better next time. Full and free forgiveness of sins, which is the only message that can actually help a person in that situation, is in most cases, simply not talked or preached about at all in those churches. If it’s talked about at all, it’s addressed to those who are visiting, as a means of encouraging them to join the church in the first place. But once a person joins, the Gospel is almost never mentioned again. It’s no wonder the most committed and most active Christians were the most burned out. When you think about it, that sort of life is not all that different from what Luther went through as a monk.

Compared to all that, Jesus’ yoke really is easy, and His burden really is light. You see, our relationship with our God, where we stand in His sight, doesn’t depend on how well we’ve done at keeping His law. No matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve at best kept it very poorly, and if you include the thoughts and desires of the mind and heart, we haven’t even come close to keeping it at all. But because our relationship with him is dependent not on how well we’re doing, but on what He has done for us, and the promises he makes to us in the Scriptures, we can be confident that our heavenly Father is still our true Father and we are His true children. Should we strive to do good and avoid sin? Yes, of course we should. Do our failures affect our relationship with God? No they do not. Our confidence is not in what we do, but in what He has done.

And that is just plain liberating. As one of my professors at Fort Wayne, Dr. David Scaer, puts it in his commentary on James, the forgiveness of sins gives us a certain recklessness in doing good. Because our relationship with God is secure, our failures, including our future failures, are already forgiven. Now, that doesn’t mean we should carelessly or deliberately sin. But it does mean that we are free to serve God and our neighbor as well as we can without worrying about the fact that we won’t be perfect at it. Our relationship with God is grounded in His forgiveness and love, not in our commitment or decision. And so we really do have an easy yoke and a light burden. What we do in service to God and our neighbor isn’t weighed down by the fact that we never quite get it right. Our heavenly future is secure, even though we may stumble and fall during our earthly walk. God has already forgiven us. We already know what the verdict on Judgment Day will be: “It is finished.” And so our burden really is light, because eternity with God doesn’t hang in the balance. That’s been taken care of by Christ on the cross, and given you day after day and Sunday after Sunday in His Word and His body and blood. You’ve got heaven. You don’t need to work for it. Your burden is light indeed. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +