St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
Wednesday Chapel (Matins), St. Peter Lutheran School
Ezekiel 2:8-3:11 (St. Matthew 9:9-13)
September 21, 2016
September 21st is the day that Christians have set apart to remember St. Matthew. Who was St. Matthew? He was the man the Holy Spirit inspired to write the first book in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew. He was also one of the 12 men Jesus called to be an apostle, which means “someone who is sent out.” After Jesus ascended into heaven, He sent out the apostles into the world to proclaim how Jesus died for our sins and rose again to declare us righteous before God. Then they baptized those who believed what they preached and continued to teach them everything that Jesus taught. The apostles planted Jesus’ Church, His community of saints in a world of darkness. And wherever you find Jesus’ Church in this world, you also find Jesus, because, as St. Matthew recorded in his Gospel, Jesus promised to be with them “every day until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Now it’s right that we should remember and honor the apostles of Jesus. We remember and honor them when we learn and believe the Gospel Jesus sent them to proclaim and thank Him for sending them with the message of salvation. On the other hand, when people make gods out of the apostles or other saints, when they trust in Christians through whom God did great things instead of trusting in God, that is not honoring the apostles and the saints. Faithful Christians never want other believers to put their trust in them. Faithful Christians always boast in Jesus and what He has done for us. They trust in Him and teach other people to do the same.
A lot of times when a faithful Christian dies, people start to talk about how great he was. But when faithful Christians are alive, that’s not how it usually goes, particularly for those Christians who are called to preach God’s Word, like St. Matthew was.
When Jesus called Matthew, there was nothing great about him. He was sitting in his tax booth. To the people at that time tax collectors were terrible sinners. They were known for cheating and stealing. And yet while he was still a sinner Jesus called Matthew to follow Him. He forgave Matthew’s sins and had plans to send Matthew out to preach how God freely forgave all sinners through Jesus, who received the punishment for our sins in our place.
And the first thing Matthew did after Jesus called him was have a feast, a party, where he invited all the other tax collectors he knew so they could come and meet Jesus and also be saved. But the Pharisees didn’t like this. They criticized Matthew—and Jesus—for being willing to hang around with all these sinners. To which Jesus responded: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick…I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Jesus came to save sinners! That’s the good news. That’s the Gospel! It’s the joyful message that Matthew preached. But it’s not a joyful message to many people, even to most people. Why not? Because they don’t want to hear that they are sinners before God. That’s true of people outside of the church. It’s also true of people inside the church. People in the church will usually agree, in a general way, that they are sinners. But if they are confronted with their specific sins, they often get mad. Understanding that all people are sinners is one thing. Accepting that you have sinned and deserve God’s punishment in hell is something else.
That’s why the saints are not usually loved when they are alive, especially preachers.
In the reading from Ezekiel, we heard how God called Ezekiel to be a prophet. He told Ezekiel not to be rebellious like the people of Israel, and gave him a scroll to eat. It had bitter words written on it—words of judgment from God, meant to bring people to repentance. But when Ezekiel ate the scroll, it tasted sweet. That’s how God’s word is. When it tells us we are sinners and calls us to repentance, it is bitter; but when we receive it, it becomes sweet—because God takes away our sins.
But God told Ezekiel before Ezekiel went out to preach, “The house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all of the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” But God told Ezekiel that he had made Ezekiel as hard as the house of Israel, so that Ezekiel would not lose heart when he preached and the people got angry, refused to listen, or hated him.
God made Ezekiel as stubborn in preaching His Word as the Israelites were in rejecting it. Why did God do that? Because God stubbornly keeps working for the salvation of sinners. Even when they fight Him and don’t want to listen, He keeps preaching His judgment until they are broken and terrified. Then He proclaims the good news that Jesus was broken for our sins and took them away.
People are stubborn. They don’t want to admit that they are sinners. Matthew knew he was, and when Jesus called him, he came. The Pharisees didn’t accept that they were, and they fought against Jesus, until finally they got their way—they thought—and had Him put to death on the cross.
We rejoice today that Matthew didn’t give up when many people rejected his preaching of Jesus. He was faithful until death. Because of that the Gospel continues to be preached to us that we may be saved.
Honor St. Matthew today for preaching Christ…see that you have a heart that listens to God when He rebukes you. Then you will find that His word is sweet, sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
What the Spirit Says to the Churches About the Lord of the Church. Revelation 1:9-20 (Trinity 17 2016)
17th Sunday after Trinity (First Sunday of Fall Series)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 18, 2016
“What the Spirit Says to the Churches about the Lord of the Church”
How do you know if a church is living and healthy? If you did a survey asking that question, I imagine that there would be a lot more agreement among Christians and non-Christians than you might expect. People would probably say—a healthy church is friendly. Many would say that a healthy church has a strong youth program, because a church not reaching the next generation is a dying church. Many people would say that a strong church is successfully reaching out and bringing in new members. Many would say a growing attendance is a sign that a church is healthy.
But none of those things are signs of a healthy church. A church could easily have all those things and be a spiritual corpse, or be sick unto death.
When evaluating whether a church is healthy, most people overlook the one thing needful—the doctrine of Jesus. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them”—teaching them what, Lord? “Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) But can’t a church be healthy even if it doesn’t teach all that Jesus has commanded? Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, says the Lord. Even earthly bosses and rulers don’t put up with those who are under them listening to only some of their commands. The Church of Christ has one Lord—Jesus. No pastor is a co-Lord with Jesus with the right to add or subtract from His teaching. Jesus doesn’t share the throne at the Father’s right hand with individual Christians either, so that they are free to veto the parts of His teaching that seem offensive to them. The Church is the body of Christ, but Christ is the head. There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism. A church that does not hold the one faith of Jesus, but departs from it in any article, cannot be a healthy church. Jesus promised to be with His disciples when they baptized and taught all that He commanded, not when they departed from Him and taught what seemed good to them.
Yet a church is not healthy simply because it formally acknowledges the pure doctrine of Jesus. Having a confession of the true faith in the church’s constitution or having the true doctrine preached from the pulpit by itself is not a sign of a healthy church. A healthy church not only hears Christ’s word and formally acknowledges it; a church is healthy to the degree that its members believe Christ’s Word and grow in their faith in it. A church that formally acknowledges Christ’s Word while most of its members are no longer growing in faith—or even where faith in Christ’s Word has become a dead knowledge in many of its members, rather than a living trust of the heart—is not a healthy church, despite having the pure word of Christ. It is a church that is sick.
But how can you tell whether faith in the word of Christ is growing in the people of a given church? Nobody can look into people’s hearts and see whether they believe or whether that faith is growing stronger or weaker.
That’s true, and it’s a reason why we shouldn’t be quick to judge a church—someone else’s, or our own. What we see doesn’t always tell us the whole story. Faith is God’s work. He does it in secret. And like a seed that has been alive and growing for some time before you see the first little green stem poking out of the dirt, so it is with faith in God’s Word—it grows, but we often don’t notice its growth. And it takes time before the little seedling becomes a fruit-bearing plant or tree.
Yet a growing faith in the word of Christ is not without visible signs. It is known by what it does.
Faith in Christ doesn’t deny Jesus’ teaching willingly. When it does so, it does so in ignorance. But true faith in Christ gives itself away in that it never wants to depart from Christ’s word and teaching. As a result, a true Christian wants to study the Word of God and be taught it; and when a Christian is shown from the Bible that he is in error in something he believes, he is troubled by it. He doesn’t look at it just as being a matter of different interpretations. He wants to be sure that he doesn’t contradict or deny the teaching of His Lord.
Faith in Christ also makes itself known by eagerness to receive God’s gifts in the Divine Service and by its faithfulness in prayer. It is faithful in giving because it realizes how much the Lord has given to us. It moves a person to serve others—at home, work, and at church—because a Christian believes that the Lord served him by dying on the cross, and still serves him His body and blood. And faith in Christ witnesses to others about Jesus, both out of joy in what it has received and out of the conviction that there is no salvation apart from faith in Jesus.
Six things—Divine Service. Scripture. Prayer. Giving. Serving. Witnessing. A person who is growing in faith in Christ through His pure Word also grows in these six things. That’s why for the last nine years I’ve taught about those six things every fall, and urged you to work to grow in them.
And so we can easily evaluate right here this morning, in the quiet of our hearts, whether we can say of ourselves that we have grown in these six things in the past nine years. Whether we have made a serious effort to do so. Not in order to make ourselves feel guilty—or proud—but realizing that whether or not I am growing in faith is a serious thing for which I will one day give an account to God; realizing that our growth or decline in faith and its fruits has consequences not only for ourselves, but for this congregation’s health.
Those six things—attending Divine Service, reading Scripture, praying, giving, serving, witnessing—are all gifts from God. And yet a person could easily look at them and think that they are all things that we have to do.
But there is one other thing in the fall series that is not something we do in any respect. It is something we can only receive from God. And without it our efforts to grow in the other six will be in vain. We can only rightly do and grow in them if we first receive this first thing.
That thing is Christ.
That is so basic that it may seem insulting for me to mention Him. Of course we’ve received Christ! We’ve been coming to church for decades!
And I’m certainly not disputing that you have received Christ. I’m a Lutheran pastor, not a Baptist. So I preach and believe that when you as a little baby were baptized you received Christ—or He received you.
Yet many people receive Christ and then lose Him again. It’s easy for the real Christ to be replaced by a false Christ in the preaching of the Church and even in the hearts of Christians. Again, if I was a Baptist or a Calvinist pastor I would deny that it’s possible for a true Christian to ever lose Christ. If you lost Him, they say, you never really had Him to begin with. But Scripture teaches: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for awhile, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)
Christians are led away to false Christs. In the Catholic Church the Jesus who atoned for our sins with His death and gives us the forgiveness of sins freely, only through faith, is replaced with a Jesus who came to give us a new law to fulfill. But for many Christians the false Jesus that replaces the true one is a “tame” Jesus. It is a Jesus who is gracious and forgives us and may even help us when we die. He makes few demands on us and He is kind. He makes us feel comfortable and peaceful when we are able to get away from all the irritations and stresses we have to deal with in this life. He certainly doesn’t do anything that scares us or terrifies us or causes conflict. And people usually divorce this Jesus from the suffering in our lives. He doesn’t have anything to do with that, because He loves us and doesn’t want us to feel pain.
The problem with this false Jesus is that He is impotent. He comforts you when you die and any time you happen to really feel guilty about your sins. But since He has nothing to do with pain and suffering, when we experience pain and suffering we are, in essence, dealing with something beyond Jesus’ control. He doesn’t want us to suffer, and yet we do—all of us—and some of us a lot. He never does anything that makes us uncomfortable or afraid, and so—in spite of ourselves—we sometimes get bored with Jesus. We know what He’s going to say before we walk in the doors of the church.
This may be a little bit of a caricature, but isn’t it at least a partially accurate description of the way people think about Jesus?
That is the problem with idols, though—they are often boring. They’re boring because we have them under control. They can’t hurt us or scare us. But they can’t help us either. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear…feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4-8) Idols are perfectly safe—but boring. And if we worship an idol we will probably be boring also.
However the safe, tame picture of Jesus that interferes with faith in the real Jesus and that sometimes replaces it is not the Jesus who stands before us in the reading from Revelation. Spiritual health begins with receiving Jesus—the true Jesus. Not just one facet of His character or person isolated from the rest of Him. If we want Jesus, we have to receive also the beautiful yet terrible Christ who appeared to St. John. But this Christ many of us have forgotten. He is not merely the friend of the church, but the church’s Lord.
In the reading, St. John is on Patmos, a small island off the coast of modern-day Turkey. He has been imprisoned there for preaching the word of God, bearing witness that Jesus is Lord. And one “Lord’s Day”, one Sunday, the Holy Spirit comes upon him, and he has a vision. He hears a voice behind him that sounds like a trumpet blast, telling him to write down what he sees in a book and to send it to seven churches on the mainland of modern-day Turkey.
Imagine if someone came up behind you and blew a trumpet, how startling that would be! So when John turns around to “see the voice”, he suddenly sees seven golden lampstands, “and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man (Rev. 1:13).” And this person who is “like a son of man” has hair as white as snow, eyes like a flame of fire, feet that gleam like burnished bronze. His voice is like the roar of many waters. He holds seven stars in His right hand. Out of His mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword, and his face is like staring into the sun.
The phrase “son of man” we recognize, because it’s what Jesus always called Himself. But the rest is alien to us. We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ voice as a comforting sound, like the sound of a shepherd’s voice is to a sheep—but here it sounds like the roar of an ocean; and the word that comes out of His mouth is not a collection of comforting truths but a weapon of war. His eyes are a flame—suggesting zeal and passion or jealousy and anger. The light that shines from His face is like the sun shining in full strength, threatening to burn our eyes.
We know that people outside the church today have false ideas about who Jesus is. Some people claim that He is a myth, a person who never existed. Others say that He was simply a man who thought He was the Messiah and was proved not to be when He died on a cross. Many others think Jesus was a prophet, a great religious teacher who taught the same thing as all the other so-called great teachers, like Buddha or Muhammad.
But what about us? Haven’t we forgotten this side of Jesus? That in Him all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col. 2)? That He is the first and the last (Rev. 1:17), the Creator of the World, and also the one who will end it—its judge? Have we forgotten the flame of His eyes, His jealousy that hates sin with a passion more hot than any human love? Have we forgotten the power of His voice, roaring like the ocean, that swept the world into being in the beginning and will sweep it away in the end? That His Word, His doctrine, is not a safe, tame philosophy that we can master in a few months or years, but a divine weapon that maims those who handle it clumsily, and that He uses to kill His enemies?
When we are dealing with Jesus, we are dealing with the eternal God in human flesh, to whom all glory belongs, who is coming to judge the living and the dead. He is not a god that we have made and that we can control. He startles John in this reading and causes him to fall down at His feet as though dead. Jesus is the Lord of the world and most especially the Lord of the Church. He doesn’t exist to fit into our lives the way that we think He should. The church answers to Him. We exist for Him.
And we have forgotten where the Lord Jesus is. We would expect that when John sees this vision of Jesus’ glory that he had been transported to heaven. But Jesus is in the midst of the lampstands (Rev. 1:13). Jesus is in the midst of the churches. He is not somewhere else, far away, in His power and glory. He is here, in the midst of the congregation of people who bear His name.
Which means that His omnipotent power is in the midst of us. Yet so often Christians behave and talk as if Jesus has left us to build the church and govern the church. And when a church becomes weak or is dying we say, “What can we do when the society we live in no longer is interested in church, and nobody wants to come to the neighborhood we’re in, and we don’t offer the types of programs that attract new people to the church?” The creator of the world stands in the midst of the churches with omnipotent power, and we say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but without a better zip code, how can we make it?”
We have forgotten what our Lord has. He says, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. (Rev. 1:18) He has all of history under His control—He is the first and last. He was there before we existed and He knows how all things will end—for you individually, for this church, for the whole world. For him it is not a question waiting to be answered; it is done, and He knows the ending. He has everlasting life, into endless eternities. Death and destruction have no power over Him. And He also holds the keys to death and hell. He has the power to unlock its prisoners, and the power to keep them bound.
To receive Christ means first of all to receive the Lord of all the earth. But our flesh cannot bear to face Him in His glory. When we see Him, we see the God we have rejected and despised since our childhood. Every time we inwardly groaned at the thought of listening to a sermon or going to Sunday School we were despising Him. Every time we declined to serve in the church or put less than our best into serving the church, we turned our back on the one who spoke to John. Whenever we have neglected to learn and continue to grow in His Word we pushed the Lord of the Church into the background, tried to steal His church and remake it according to human wisdom, as though it was ours.
The first part of receiving Christ is receiving Him as our judge. And to do that is to die, like John fell at his feet as though dead. (Rev. 1: 17)
Only then do we receive Christ as our Savior. Because He comes to those who are dead and lays His right hand on them, the hand of His power, and says, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what He says to all of us this morning who realize that we have not borne the fruit of those whose faith in Him is growing and increasing. The voice like the roar of many waters tells you not to fear Him; and His right hand of power raises you up to live not by your own strength, but His.
He is the first and the last. Long before you were created He knew you and He knew this church. And He is the One who will bring about the end of your story. The end of our story is in front of His eyes of flame as though it has already happened. Yet He says, Do not be afraid.
It is not the ending we fear or that we deserve; our ending is tied to the end of His story. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. He is the living One. He is the life, and endless life was in Him before the world began. Yet the living One died. He entered our flesh, our nature. He suffered the curse that had come upon us. The living one died, bearing the penalty of sin; He was forsaken by God. The mighty judge was judged as having committed Adam’s sin and all its offspring—all the sins that flowered in His children. Yet behold, He lives for endless eternities; He was stronger than sin and death. He passed through them like a spider’s web. And the end that He sees for you, terrified sinner is life to eternity of eternities in Him.
And He doesn’t have life merely for Himself. When He died He took the keys to Death and hell. And now the Lord who is in the midst of the lampstands is here to use those keys. He does what no human power could dream of doing. He unlocks the door of Death and hell and lets its prisoners out.
That is what is happening when He sends His messenger, His angel, to say, “I forgive you all your sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Death and hell is opened, no matter how many times you seem to have gone back to your cell.
It’s what happens when the word of Christ is proclaimed. It’s not merely that a man is talking. The key of death and hell in the Lord Christ’s hand is inserted into the lock of your cell, and the lock clicks open, that you may enter into endless life and freedom—that you may enter into Jesus by faith.
Only when this happens do the other six things—divine service, scripture, prayer, giving, serving, witnessing—become possible. Until then they are just ways that we are trying to escape from the prison of death and hell. But for one set free they are the new life of freedom, an endless life.
Write therefore Jesus tells John. Because I have raised you by my power and freed you from death and hell, bear witness to me. Not to by your own power, to build your own church, bearing witness to me, the Lord of the Church. I build it. I wish to speak to the Church and to the world that I purchased with my blood. Your calling is merely to testify to me with your words and your life.
Soli Deo Gloria
Day of Supplication and Prayer
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Jeremiah 5:3 [Revelation 1:9-20]
September 14, 2016
“You strike them, but they feel it not.”
[Outline borrowed from Walther’s “Busstagpredigt” in Brosamen]
[The sermon was long—about 28 minutes. But it wasn’t as long as this manuscript; part of it was in outline form and I fleshed it out.]
Dear Christians: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What is a day of supplication and prayer, or a day of humiliation and prayer? It is a service set apart for public confession and repentance, and for prayer for God to help us in our distress. The prophet Joel called for such a day in the reading we just heard: Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly, gather the people…between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep and say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations.” (Joel 2:15, 17)
Joel called this “solemn assembly” in response to a calamity that was coming on the people of Israel—a plague of locusts which would cause a massive famine. And so many people would say, “This is not something for the Church to be doing in the 21st century. People don’t want to have a public service to mourn their sins and pray for God to spare them. That kind of thing doesn’t help get members—it drives people away.”
The people who say or think that are at least partly right. It’s true that what we’re doing here today definitely doesn’t appeal to many people who are looking for a church. It hasn’t for some time. The day of supplication and prayer or humiliation and prayer is not something new in the Lutheran Church. If you look in the old red hymnal you’ll find it there. Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve met any Missouri Synod Lutherans who can remember their church having such a service. Even though they had annual services of repentance and prayer in Germany into the 20th century, I don’t know how common they were in America.
However, there was at least one Lutheran Church that had this kind of service each year at least until around 1880—Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis Missouri. This was the church pastored by C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the Lutheran Synod of Missouri. And to prepare to preach to you on this day I read a sermon that He preached in his congregation in 1863.
His text for the sermon was Jeremiah 5:3, which says: O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth? You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent.
As I preach to you on the basis of this word of God I will be following the theme and outline of Dr. Walther’s sermon, which he preached at the height of the civil war. Because although we think the world has changed so much since 1863, or 800 B.C., when Joel lived, certain things have not changed very much at all.
The Triune God still rules the earth. And He is not an “idle spectator” of what goes on here. Just as in the Bible, He looks from where He sits enthroned…on all the inhabitants of the earth…and observes all their deeds. (Psalm 33:14-15) And just as in the Scripture, God punishes and chastens nations and groups of people in His wrath—not only in eternity, but also in this life. That is what the verse from Jeremiah is talking about, only the people that God punished in Jeremiah’s day did not feel his punishment, did not repent and turn to God. Walther preached to his congregation in 1863 that the same thing was happening to the people of America, and what was true in Walther’s day is still true in ours.
Theme: Jeremiah’s two-fold lamentation applies to us and to our congregation.
+ The lamentation “You strike them down.”
+The lamentation, “They do not feel it.”
- How we know it’s God that has stuck both our country and our congregation; how we know it’s because of our sins
Walther preached in 1863 that God had struck America down in His wrath. The civil war, which had already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives at that point, was God’s anger being poured out on the United States because of its sin and rebellion.
This is not a kind of sermon I have ever heard preached in my lifetime, except maybe by the Westboro Baptist Church when it holds up signs outside the funerals of soldiers saying, “God hates America.”
We don’t hear these sermons anymore, but they are all over the Bible. Did God stop punishing nations? He didn’t. We still confess that we deserve God’s “temporal” or “present” punishment. Temporal punishment refers to wars, natural disasters, famines, plagues—events that bring death and suffering to nations and communities.
What Walther preached in 1863 is true today. God has punished our country in our lifetime. When the twin towers exploded and fell to the ground, killing thousands—God struck us. When the Supreme Court ruled that abortion was legal in the United States, and in the 45 years since 60 million of our babies were murdered—God struck us. As we watch the American family collapse and children grow up missing a parent or with parents never married, we are watching God’s hand strike our country. Even if these things haven’t happened to you, they affect you.
But how do we know God is responsible for these things? Don’t they happen because of people’s sin, or because of natural forces and laws?
The Scripture tells us that God is in control over everything. He doesn’t cause sin, but no sinner can do the evil in his heart unless God permits it. Jesus tells us that a sparrow doesn’t fall from the sky without the Father in heaven. More specifically, we hear from the prophet Amos, “Does evil befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” (Amos 3:6)
Jesus does tell us to be careful about making judgments about a person when something bad happens to them. When a tower fell on some people in Jerusalem and killed them, Jesus said, Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no: but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:5) Jesus says—that didn’t happen to them because they were worse sinners than everyone else. Nevertheless, it happened because they were sinners. So the Christian response to any tragedy is to recognize God’s hand in it, and to allow it to cause us to repent.
But God has not only struck our country. He has also struck our church. Can anyone say otherwise?
Is it an accident that our church has declined since the seventies? Is it an accident that, during my time here at least, St. Peter has been racked by division? And the closure of the school—do we think God didn’t know how to keep it open, even in a bad neighborhood, even in a time of people falling away from the Church? Is God bound by the rules of sociology? Is He only able to save those who seem likely to us to accept the Gospel? Is it too hard for Him to work in the hearts of people that belong to different ethnic groups, socio-economic groups? He oHe And our recent hugely expensive repairs? Is all this an accident?
No, God has struck us with His rod.
- Why has God struck America and St. Peter?
There are things that God doesn’t reveal to us. His secret judgment on individuals and nations is not something we are given to know—whom He has predestined to salvation. And if we aren’t prophets we can’t say that God has decided to give the United States of America over to destruction for this or that reason. Whether He has or not, He alone knows. He may yet grant America time to repent.
What we can acknowledge, when God strikes us, is the sins that are obvious in us that we know provoke His anger. And if we are not certain, we can search the Scriptures, asking Him to enlighten us. We can examine ourselves in the light of His Word.
When Walther preached in 1863, he pointed out how God had for decades blessed America, seeking to lead it to repentance and the knowledge of Him by His kindness. He opened wells of prosperity, blessed her with civil and religious freedom, and made her a refuge for the downtrodden of the world. But instead of acknowledging God as the giver of these gifts, the country boasted of its own enlightened intelligence, its strength, its wealth, and gave God’s glory to itself. And so, in time, God let his anger fall on the United States, and sent the pale horse of war and its rider, with death and hell following after.
The situation is much the same today. America has enjoyed incredible wealth and prosperity since the Second World War. Even during the two great wars that ravaged the populations of Europe, American casualties were light in comparison. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we became the world’s hegemon. Even today most of the nations of the world dance to the tune played by the United States. But the power, wealth, and prestige God gave to the United States was not paralleled by an increase in godliness and the knowledge of God. Instead, despite a bump in church attendance after World War 2, Americans began to throw off moral restraint. Divorce became common. Fornication became normal. In the name of equality and sexual liberation we justified the murder of the unborn. Then, after the major challenger to our power in the world collapsed, we were shaken awake. Somehow a handful of Islamic fanatics living in caves in Afghanistan succeeded in flying jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, claiming thousands of lives. It became apparent that wealth and immense power was not enough to make the world into a liberal democratic Garden of Eden. There was another power in the world with which we had to reckon.
It was a wake-up call. And for a few months, maybe a few years Americans were shaken. But not enough to turn to God, to listen to His Word, to trust Him above our billions, our stealth bombers, our assurance that “freedom” was the answer to all the problems of the world. Not enough to repent of allowing our children to be dissected in the womb and then tossed into medical waste dumpsters. And in a few years America became worse than it was before. We not only didn’t turn back to God, but went on to embrace an evil that history has never seen before—the attempt to make homosexual relationships equal to the union of a man and woman in one flesh.
Since that time God does not seem to be striking us anymore, at least not with death and devastation. Perhaps that is because, as Romans 1 suggests, God has given us up and is reserving us for utter and final destruction. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men…Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them (Romans 1:26-27, 32).
And what about our congregation? Why has God struck us? That last verse from Romans—though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die—doesn’t apply just to sodomy. Paul lists other sins: evil, covetousness, malice…envy…strife, deceit…they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful…disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless…(Romans 1:29-31) Those vices that are common to the corrupt, sinful flesh, have not been absent among us, and they are sufficient to provoke God’s anger and sentence of death. When we tolerate such sins in the Church and allow them to be practiced without rebuke, we should not imagine that God will allow them to go without His discipline.
But we have a much larger problem at St. Peter. For many years, during the long ministry of Erdmann Frenk and his son, God blessed St. Peter with many members. 3 services on Sunday were full. Sunday school filled the entire gym with kids, as I’ve heard. On Palm Sunday forty or fifty kids were confirmed each year for decades.
Then suddenly God took Erdmann to his reward. Five years, to the distress of the congregation, He took Martin too. And then, by all accounts, the congregation began to decline. And during that thirty years of decline from 1975 until about 2005, much of the congregation forgot—if they ever knew—the pure doctrine of God’s Word.
People forgot the ten commandments. They forgot that God commands us to gladly hear and learn His Word. People stopped coming to church at all, or came inconsistently. They forgot about the sixth commandment and remaining chaste until marriage. They forgot about the fourth commandment and the obligation of parents to teach their children God’s Word.
They forgot the Apostles’ Creed, particularly the third article, which teaches that the Holy Spirit alone is able to bring a person to faith in Christ and preserve them in it, and that He does that through the preaching, hearing and reading of His Word. They were offended to hear that much of what is taught by famous preachers and popular Christian books is antithetical to Christ’s teaching, in particular when they say that salvation comes as a result of the decision of a human will. And they forgot that when the Holy Spirit brings a person to faith in Christ, He also brings them to the Holy Christian Church. They forgot that the Church is not just a gathering of people who feel comfortable with each other, tied together by blood or likemindedness, but it is the congregation of those who hear, believe and confess only God’s pure word.
They forgot about the Office of the Keys, that God has given the church the authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners and to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant, and as a result they forgot to practice church discipline and were offended that I started offering private absolution and exhorting people to make use of it. Finally, they forgot about the Sacrament of the Altar, and that since we receive not only bread and wine but also the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus in our mouths at the altar, we have no authority either to replace the bread and wine with some other element, nor to give Christ’s body and blood to those whose faith we don’t know, or who have confessed another doctrine than Christ’s by becoming a member of a Church that deviates from His teaching.
And when it became clear that many people in the congregation had forgotten the teaching of God’s Word that this congregation had confessed and stood for in the past, did the congregation repent? No. Things went on just as before. Most people did not take the opportunity to learn what they had forgotten. They chose to go on eating donuts in the gym during bible class. Some became irritated when other services were held during the week. Even tonight, when everyone who is here regularly heard me ask for everyone who is worried about the future of St. Peter to join with us tonight in confessing our sins and praying for God’s help for our congregation, ninety percent of the people who attend on Sunday declined.
God blessed St. Peter for many years under the ministry of the Frenks; but those blessings did not result in ongoing fruit in the lives of many of the people who were served by them. Many have forgotten what those men taught and are not zealous to learn it again, nor to do everything in their power to ensure that it continues to be taught and proclaimed here to another generation.
We can’t know for sure if that is the reason why God’s rod has struck us. Yet the fact that we have been knocked down by His blows should move us to recognize these things and ask for grace.
Walther preached to his congregation that the worst part of Jeremiah’s lament is not that God had struck the country; the worst thing is the second part: “they do not feel it” or “they refused to take correction.” Despite the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the crippling of many more, despite all the souls that had been snatched suddenly and cast into hell, and the others whose faith had been snuffed out by the passions elicited by the war, America did not “feel” God’s punishment. They felt the pain of lost business, lost loved ones, lost limbs, lost property. But they did not feel the reality that it was God who had struck them down, who was angry with them. They saw only the enemy government as the cause of the evils they were experiencing.
Our country hasn’t changed. Faced with crippling national debt, moral chaos, polarization between “red” and “blue” America that approaches the animosity between the North and South prior to the civil war, Americans almost unilaterally agree that the instability in our country is caused by bad politics. We continue to be confident that prosperity and happiness would come to our country if it weren’t for the left controlling the media and universities, or bitter gun-toting Bible-thumping hillbillies wanting to oppress people. And any problems not caused by bad politics are just a matter of researching and applying the right technique or the right program. There are very few people who would take seriously any suggestion that the reason the United States seems to be teetering on the brink of economic collapse or social disruption is because God is against us. God has struck the nation, but the nation does not feel it; it refuses to receive correction. It has made its face as hard as rock and refuses to repent.
Dear God! How awful it is to think that same hardness is present in our church! And yet how else can we explain it? Everyone sees the congregation on the brink of death. Yet people continue to tell themselves and each other: “Well, the bad neighborhood we’re in drives people away. Besides, this is happening to all the churches and schools all over the Synod. And what can we do? The young people like the informality of the non-denominational churches—their parking lots are always full. And, you know, there are all these activities on Sunday that there didn’t used to be, and people often have to work then.” And so on. Not that these things aren’t real—clearly they are!
But they are all ways of evading the reality that God has done this. We are on the point of death because God has struck us. God made a dry scrub brush in the middle of the desert burn without going out until Moses came over to see what was going on. Jesus walked on the Sea of Galilee; He commanded a storm to be still. In the reading from Revelation He appeared to John on the isle of Patmos with a voice like a trumpet, like the sound of many waters. His eyes were like fire, and His face like the sun in its full strength, and out of His mouth came a double-edged sword. He was walking among the candlesticks—that is, the Churches. The sound of His voice and the terrifying beauty of His appearance are the reflections of His glory that He put on in His resurrection. All the fullness of God dwells in His body (Colossians 2); He has ascended to sit on the throne of God, from which He reigns over the earth. But He is in the midst of the churches, including ours. The sword of His mouth had the power to cut open the kingdom of the antichrist through the preaching and teaching of one monk in a backwater German university. It had the power to convert this congregation from a heterodox bunch of German immigrants who didn’t know what “Lutheran” meant into a congregation that confessed the Bible as God’s inerrant word and the Book of Concord as a faithful exposition of the Word of God. It has the power to drive out Satan from a person’s heart, to pierce our hearts of stone so that they become hearts of flesh. This Lord Jesus is more than powerful enough to preserve this congregation in the midst of a bad neighborhood and in the midst of rising irreligiosity among young people.
But He has not done this. Instead He has struck us. He has permitted division and contention to weary the congregation; He has sent us huge building repairs we don’t know how to pay; he has allowed children and young families to disappear from the Church. But we don’t feel it. We haven’t taken correction. We see no need to interrupt our routines. I have heard people express the thought that they have heard everything I preach to them a long time ago. “We know this already,” our actions seem to say. It’s the furthest thing from most of our members’ minds that God is striking us with His rod, that He is displeased with us.
But you are here tonight. So maybe I’m talking to the wrong people. But no; how often we tell ourselves that because we are doing better than others we have no further need of repentance and growth! But that is what just about everyone tells themselves. “Well, sure, I don’t give ten percent of my income, and I don’t go to bible class, but I do go to church just about every week.” “Well, sure, I don’t go to church every week, but I go a lot more than most people do; most people I know don’t go to church at all.”
That’s not the standard. You no longer need to repent when you are fully in the image of Christ. But if you have not yet shared in His sufferings completely and become like Him in His death (Philippians 3:9-10), if you have not already obtained this and become perfect (Phil 3:12), you are still in need of repentance and of pressing on to make it [perfection in Christ] your own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [pressing] on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3: 12-14). We also have often been negligent in hearing, reading, and growing in the knowledge of Christ’s Word.
Even more, we are also immature in Christ, and lack the love that would drive us on to ensure that we not only learn His Word, but teach it to others. To proclaim the Gospel to people who don’t believe, to seek out the people who learned the Word of God but fell away, to struggle to ensure that God’s Word is kept pure in the congregation—all of this results in opposition and hostility, both from people and from the devil. So we often keep quiet. Or we start to proclaim the Gospel to others and then fall back when it becomes difficult. This, too, is sin that provokes God’s anger. And when we become comfortable with failing to confess, teach, and witness to God’s Word, the sloth and lethargy can kill our spiritual life just as well as outright rebellion against God’s Word.
- Results of not repenting.
Walther told his congregation that their sin was that the spirit of the world had made inroads into the congregation. Instead of praying and wrestling for the salvation of their neighbors during the war, many of the congregation had adopted the thinking of the world. Instead of seeing the civil war as God’s judgment on the country, many of these German immigrants, who opposed slavery, had allowed their thinking to be directed by the atheistic philosophy fed to them in the newspapers. They saw the war as birthpangs of a utopia that would arise when “equality” reigned in the land.
This should sound familiar to us. How little America has changed in 150 years, despite appearances! The media was advancing a philosophy that was—unbeknownst to many American citizens—essentially opposed to the teaching of Scripture. The religious hope it preached was “equality”—the same hope that in recent years has brought us homosexual “marriage”, transgender bathrooms, the execution of police officers.
“Equality” doesn’t sound like an evil philosophy. It sounds right and good—who would be opposed to people being treated equally? Doesn’t God want that?
But that’s just the point. When our minds are directed by the spirit of the world and by our own reasoning, moral or otherwise, we are easily led away from God. Walther told his congregation that by not being directed by God’s inerrant word, they had been led away from Christ. Instead of praying for their neighbors, seeking their salvation, telling them the truth, they confirmed their neighbors in their error and were caught in it themselves. God, of course, made all human beings from one man. We are all equally God’s creation, all equally subject to God’s Law and judgment, all equal participants in the sin of the first man. And we have all been equally redeemed by the death of God’s Son in order that we may all have a share in eternal life.
Yet God also created people unequal. Some are smarter than others; some are born with more wealth. Some are born into Christian homes. Men have been appointed by God the head of their wives and their families; He has also given them leadership in the Church, while to women He has given the ability to bear, birth, and nurse children, and to influence children, husbands and other men not by authority but by nurture, gentleness, and submission. God gave rulers and judges the authority to bear the sword in His name and the authority to rule and punish, and He commands those under their authority to be subject to them. In the church, God has given the authority to preach His Word and administer the sacraments only to those He has called. So “equality” sounds like a noble, moral cause. Yet when in the name of “equality” or any other noble idea people oppose God’s Word and His order, they are not being led by Christ’s Spirit but by the spirit of the world.
So Walther concluded by telling his congregation that this worldliness was like a worm gnawing through the core of the congregation. If the congregation did not repent and return to the unerring Word of God, he said, it might retain the external form of a right-believing congregation, but it would be a hollow shell. They would have the name of being alive and yet be dead.
The same words apply to us. Our congregation has learned to think of “church” in a very worldly way. It has forgotten that the life of the church is God’s Word; it has come to believe that a bare minimum of Christian doctrine is enough of God’s Word because, while it may be necessary for us to keep the name doctrine, God’s Word is not the power that keeps the Church alive. It has forgotten that a limited Word of God is not God’s Word at all. If it is God’s Word, then He will not allow it to be edited, limited, shortened, boiled down to what we think is essential. We have forgotten that a church that has to submit to cultural expectations of what it ought to be in order to attract people is not Christ’s Church. Christ doesn’t lead His church to a tasteful modern building in the suburbs with a full parking lot unless it is on the way to Golgotha. We have forgotten that a personal piety that is merely formal and traditional is dead. A piety that says, “I will go to church on Sunday morning for an hour. But no one can demand anything more than that of me” is not a living Christianity. A Christian believes in Christ and follows Christ. If tradition says, “You only have to learn the catechism when you’re fourteen and then you’re done,” and Christ says, “No, I want you to learn more,” a Christian gladly receives what His Lord is giving. If tradition says, “Lutherans don’t do private confession,” and it turns out tradition is wrong—and moreover, that there is a gift to be received there from Jesus, namely the forgiveness of sins—a Christian forsakes tradition and goes to receive from Jesus.
The worm has eaten deeply into the core of our congregation. We do retain the form of a confessional Lutheran congregation; we require our pastors to swear that they believe and will teach according to those confessions. Our congregation’s constitution says that the doctrine of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions is an unalterable article; if we want to change our confession of faith, we will have to disband as a congregation first. Yet few remember what those confessions even are; few remember what they say, and few are willing to be taught.
We are already, largely, a shell. Whether the spiritual life that remains among us will endure at all depends on God alone, as it always has. And whether God will expel the worms and cause what remains to thrive in this place—that too depends only on God.
But to think that He will preserve our congregation without repentance is a false hope.
- How we should repent.
Ninety percent of those who attend each week are not here tonight. You cannot cause them to repent. You can pray for them and speak God’s Word to them when the opportunity presents itself. But everyone else’s repentance is finally in the hands of God.
Repentance in the congregation can only happen if individuals repent. Each one of us needs to examine our lives in the light of God’s Word, asking the Holy Spirit to enlighten us where we ourselves have failed to hear the Word and to bear the fruit of repentance. How have I been part of the reason for God striking St. Peter?
Then we can begin to help one another see our faults, and be willing to accept this exhortation and rebuke from one another. It is unpleasant to think about this if you have experienced criticism from people in the Church, particularly if it was harsh or unloving, but it is possible that many times that criticism was actually the voice of God rebuking you, calling you to repentance.
And if in the course of this self-examination you are overcome by grief or a sense of the greatness of your sin and guilt, an awareness that you contributed to the suffering and decline of this congregation, take to yourself God’s certain promise of grace and forgiveness that He gives to repentant sinners. He never says that He will cast off the person with a broken heart, a contrite spirit, who is broken over his sins. Rather, God says, “If we walk in the light…the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin…If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteus. He is the propitiation for our sins.” ( 1 John 1-2) Take your grief to God in confession and comfort yourself with His promise of absolution. Or still better, confess your sin privately to me and the Lord will speak His absolution to you through me. And if that is too difficult, confess to someone else who will declare God’s pardon to you.
- Result of repentance.
Repentance is never pleasant at the time, but God always follows it with great comfort and great blessings.
Repentance will undo the devil’s work at St. Peter, and turn God’s judgment and punishment into healing. The pain will be turned into joy.
It may not result in everything we desire. It may not result in St. Peter being renewed and flourishing again, or even remaining here another generation.
But it will be a work of God in us that will endure. The fruit of repentance may be refreshment for other sinners in need of repentance who are being stricken by God and do not feel it. It may be something else. But it will certainly be this—a greater love for the treasure of Christ’s word, an ear more open to the voice of Jesus, followed by a heart more open to Him and others and more full. Finally, its fruit will be eternal life, when we who have been gathered together in Him here will be gathered together again in Him with the great congregation at the wedding feast, the feast of victory, the feast of joy, when there will be no more need for repentance and when the Lord Himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
- Acknowledging God as the giver of repentance.
But this gift of repentance and the consolation and exceedingly great joy that follows from it is a gift that can only be given by God. Therefore we bow our knees before Him tonight to confess our sins, to receive His absolution that unchains us from all our sins, and to call on Him to grant His mighty power to work repentance in our congregation and in its members who have fallen away, as well as to many others who have never known our Lord who was stricken by God for our offenses and felt the anguish of those stripes to deliver us from the bonds of our sins.
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
C. F. W. Walther, Sermon “On the Annual Day of Repentance”, Brosamen p. 270-278.
Condensed translation by Pastor Karl Hess,
St. Peter Lutheran Church, Joliet, IL.
September 13, 2016
Hearers, guilty together with me and yet dearly purchased by Christ!
The most terrifying punishment which God has ever allowed to happen to a land and people is without doubt the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans…
…Outside the city stormed the foe. Inside was the uproar of fanatical parties which, in wild fury, rent each other even in the face of external foes…hunger, pestilence…thousands of unburied corpses inside and outside the city gates filled the air with pestilence…A mother killed her own baby and prepared it as a last meal; the soldiers killed people in the search for gold. 1.5 million died. Land laid waste.
…Fulfilled word of Jesus…”There will be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world…and if these day’s weren’t shortened, no one would be saved.”
…But this was not the worst thing. The worst thing was this: they didn’t recognize that God’s wrath had come upon them, and they didn’t confess their sins and repent. If they had, the wrathful rod of God would have turned into His fatherly rod, and He would have snatched their soul like a brand from the fire.
But the Jews didn’t see God in it; they saw it only as the work of the Romans. (p.272) They didn’t want to see that it was God who worked through the Romans like an avenging angel. In the midst of the punishment they thought they were still God’s elect people and that their cause was righteous…and believed that at last God would give them victory, even without repentance and conversion. No exhortation and no chastening through men helped. Nor did warning-signs, which were visible in the heavens, nor did offers of peace on the part of the Romans. The people were hardened until all mercy with God and men came to an end, and the blinded people were thrown into the open doors of death and hell.
Oh dear brothers, I wish to God I could call out on this day of repentance and say, “Praise God! It’s not like this with our land and people! We recognize God’s punishing hand and repent!” But if I said that I would be a false prophet….
It’s true that not all true Christians have left America like they did Jerusalem for Pella. I don’t doubt that there are still thousands of believing children of God among our people. But, my loves, not only has the state of Jerusalem for the most part repeated itself in our land, but also most of the present virgins still here now appear to have fallen asleep, so that they still don’t see the true condition of our nation and people, as He pictures it in the divine Word. Thus they themselves stand in great danger to their souls.
In order that we may envision that condition, this hour has been consecrated.
Verse: Jeremiah 5:3
(p. 273) Lord, your eyes look for faith. You strike them, but they feel it not; you plague them, but they do not amend. They have a countenance harder than a rock, and will not be converted.
With these words, my loves, the holy prophet Jeremiah describes the state of the Jewish people shortly before the destruction of the first temple before the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. In these words is also described the present condition of our people. And that it is then also that I, to the awakening of true contrition in us all, mean now to show you. Namely:
That the prophet’s twofold complaint, “You strike them, but they feel it not,” also applies to our people:
1. The lament: “You strike them,” and
2. The lament: “But they feel it not.”
That the first part applies to our people no one can deny unless he is an atheist and no longer believes in a God in heaven, and has silenced the loud voice within all men that says “There is one God!”
It’s true that pestilence and famine comes as a consequence of failure of harvest from God, and that it is easier to see that these national disasters are not by means of men. But even if godless people alone were the mediate cause of all wars, the final cause for these [wars] is always God, who uses them as the rod of His discipline and punishment.
God is not only the Creator, but the ruler of the world…He isn’t an idle spectator who lets the world do whatever it wants. Jesus explains that not one sparrow falls from the sky without the will of the Father…and all the hairs on our heads are numbered.
“The Lord looks down from heaven and sees all the children of men…He marks all their deeds.” Psalm 33
God is not the cause of sin, but without His will no sinner can move or control heart, tongue, hand nor foot…. (p. 274) ”Whatever, therefore, the sinner would like to do, he can do nothing except fulfill what God has resolved.”
Therefore the prophet Amos cries (3:6): “Is there also disaster in the city, and the Lord hasn’t done it?” and in the prophet Isaiah the Lord Himself says, “I make the light and create the darkness; I give peace and create evil. I am the Lord, who does all these things.”
If we want to know the reason for war and bloodshed, we must lift our thoughts up higher, because no people on earth could terrify another with war were it not, as Daniel says, “Concluded in the council of the watchers, and deliberated on in the discussions of the holy ones.” That is, in the council of the Triune God…Thus in Holy Scripture it is said of God that He is a “true man of war”, who “governs the wars in all the world, who breaks the bow, shatters spears, and burns the chariots with fire”… Also that He visits the peoples’ sin and falling away with war and bloodshed…The prophets threatened His covenant people over and over and finally really punished them with bloody wars, for instance through Nebuchadnezzar, God’s chosen instrument…
So it’s clear without a doubt that “You strike them” applies to our people at this time.
For a long line of years God rained streams of love on our land and people. He made it a place of refuge for the poor and oppressed of all nations, and opened thousands of wells of wealth here, gifted us with all the blessings of religious and civil freedom; in short He made this place an earthly paradise, “so that our America stood as a wonder before the eyes of all nations.”
He wanted to lead our people to repentance through the riches of His kindness. But what has happened? Our people, like Nebuchadnezzar, didn’t give God the glory for these benefits…Our people have propagated the idolatry of themselves, their freedom, their might, their wealth. Instead of being led to God, we fell from God more and more and said to gold nuggets, “My consolation!” Open atheism, false oaths, despising of the Word of God and desecration of the Sabbath, disobedience to parents and uproar (p. 275) against authority, murder, unchastity, deceit of all kinds, usury, bribery, false witness, unrighteous judgment—all these have become such everyday horrors that nobody is surprised or appalled by them—horrors which, unpunished by men, now already for long years have cried loudly to heaven for vengeance.
Thus God finally decided no longer to look on with His despised, mocked patience; thus He has finally allowed the fulfillment of John’s vision to go forth, who in his Revelation wrote: “And behold, I saw a pale horse, and he who sat on it, whose name was called death, and hell followed after him.” A terrifying war has broken out, such as has been seldom seen in the world before. Already hundreds of thousands have fallen…and only God knows how many departed in the midst of their sins and were cast into hell. Thousands and thousands have turned into weeping widows and orphans, or lie groaning in camps of pain…or live as cripples throughout the land. Thousands of peaceful homes, yes, whole cities and villages have been transformed into soot and ashes and their formerly blooming…fields into wastes. Thousands upon thousands of formerly peaceful neighbors have been transformed into bitter foes, who mortally hate each other. In whole great swathes of land families which once lived in golden peace surrender themselves in fear to murderous raids in the stillness of the night. And, what is most terrifying of all, thousands upon thousands have lost the little spark of faith and love which had been lit in their hearts in the torrential flood of the passions of war.
In His wrath, God has punished sin with sin. With every further day of wartime, the last sensation of love, morals, discipline, respectability, and domestic happiness dies away in ever more hearts, and the hosts of war, returning home, will deluge the land with still greater hosts of new sins.
O the great, O the fearful wrath of God!
Still, my loves, this is only one side of the picture of the present condition of our people and our land. Still another, disproportionately more terrifying, our text shows us, when it not only says, “You strike them,” but rather also, “But they feel it not”; not only: “you plague them,” but also: “But they do not amend themselves. They have a countenance harder than a rock, and will not be converted.” Let us then direct our gaze now also on this still darker side.
My loves, if our people had allowed this nearly two-year long distress of war to serve for the purpose for which God sent it to us, then we would have to kiss the bloody rod with tears of joy today, the rod wherewith God has struck us and our people, and with which He still is striking us. And we would have to thank Him for it.
But what is actually happening? Can we say, “Lord, you strike them and they feel it?”
Businessman feels the loss of business…propertied class feels the devaluation of property. Taxpayers feel the burden of increased taxes. Soldiers in the field feel the hardness of their service. Father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter and friend feel the pain of fallen loved ones, destruction of their hometowns, fields, the insecurity of their lives. Servants of mammon, greedy and usurers feel how their speculations of ever greater riches have been crossed out, halted, and ended. The poor feel how even their barest needs have increased in price.
But all of this is not the feeling which the Prophet meant when He said, “You strike them, but they don’t feel it.”
He means here the feeling that God is the one who strikes, that this striking is the punishment of our sins, that it is God’s wrath which has come over this Sodomitical land, that these are finally God’s judgments wherewith God in His burning wrath, unto the lowest hell, visits our people’s forgetting of God and godlessness.
But where is this feeling? There is still nothing of this feeling to be observed among our people. Much more is the old security in sin still ever present, the old pride, the old idolatry in ourselves and our works.
As the only reason for all this misfortune that has come upon us, our people regards the foe that is fighting against us; himself justified and blessed. Therefore only his opponent is execrated and cursed. But he sees nothing of God’s sword of vengeance [lifted up] over him. If one bears witness frankly and freely to our people that God is punishing our sins with this war, the answer would be like the answer of those inhabitants of Sodom, of whom it says that when they were informed of God’s judgment “It was laughable to them.” Yes, not only will people be blind and deaf to this, but still more will declare you to be a traitor to the nation, a desecrator and slanderer of the majesty of the people. And as against Stephen, who spoke against Jerusalem and the temple, people will pick up stones to throw at you as if against people who are not worthy of having the earth sustain them.
So then, in truth, the prophet Jeremiah has described the condition of our people when he writes: “You strike them, but they feel it not; you plague them, but they do not amend their ways. They have a face harder than a rock, and do not want to be converted.”
But now, my listeners, what is our condition? Must we not also admit to our own shame that even among us the majority have not recognized and felt from the beginning on in this war the punishment of our sins, the wrath and judgment of God over our people? Where are our tears of repentance over our joint guilt in the common misery? Where are our daily prayers, supplications, wrestlings, and struggle with God for contrition and grace for us and our unfortunate people? Haven’t we rather cheered those who in this war saw nothing besides the birth pangs, full of hope, of a new age of perfect freedom and equality? Haven’t we gotten our opinions about this war from the godless, atheistic newspapers instead of taking them from the unerring Word of God? Instead of looking to the Lord of all Lords, whose fierceness against our fallen people has been awakened, and who alone, above all, “carries out such desolations on earth”, have we not looked to men, and thus nurtured hatred of foes and party-anger within ourselves—indeed, even helped to increase this fire from the netherworld into a bright flame in others? Have we not taken part in the universal confidence of our people in its own might and intelligence and in its deification of men? That we have faithfully stood by the authority God has set over us, that was right; but have we not at the same time committed ourselves to the plans of those partisans which puff themselves up hypocritically with their loyalty as long as the government serves their purposes, but which cast away the mask when it appears to want to pursue another course? Those partisans which intend nothing else than to overthrow everything, and to bring about those conditions in which equality, mob rule, and impudence count for freedom?
Oh, how many have fallen into this whirlpool, of whom one frankly expected something completely different! Truly, twenty years ago such things would not have been possible in our congregation.
Twenty years ago (1843), when we were still without our own house of God, we would have considered that fact that we as Christians must follow another way than the world. We wanted at that time not to be condemned with the godless world. But we have gone backward. We have fallen. The spirit of the world has broken in among us and has carried out terrible devastations among us.
Oh my brothers and sisters, it is time; it is already high time that we remember, that we rise up from our fall, that we turn back. If we don’t want to do this, then the spirit of the world, even if he perhaps still leaves the external form of a right-believing church—still, in short he will have eaten through our core like an evil worm, and we will become an empty shell. We will have the name of being alive while we are dead.
Oh, then hear me to day, in order that you hear God again! Don’t turn away indignant from your old cure of souls (Seelsorger) who chastens you, that God Himself may not one day depart from you in the hour of your death! For I don’t speak to you in my own name, but in the name of the Lord, the Most High, to which I have been solemnly called and sworn by you.
Let each one then test his previous conduct and his condition according to God’s Word with heartfelt sighs for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
Also, as true spiritual priests, help one another to a right knowledge of himself, and let everyone allow himself to be helped to this end. Confess then to God your deviations from His Holy Word with remorse and a stricken heart, and comfort yourselves against your sins with the sweet promises of divine grace in Christ, given to all repentant sinners. Let no one here wait on another. Begin, each one, with himself, without first consulting with flesh and blood.
Oh, if we would do that, then the plan which Satan has in mind, to fight through this war against our salvation, and to cheat us through the same, would be foiled. Because when God strikes, and one feels it; when God plagues, and one amends, then God repents of all the evil that He had thought to do to us; the pain will turn into medicine, the misfortune to good fortune and the bloody war itself to means of, if not temporal, still spiritual and eternal peace.
But because God alone can give the willing and the doing, alone can give grace and peace, temporal and eternal salvation to any individual and to whole peoples, let us, in closing, cast ourselves on our knees, and call upon God together for us and our people, for the whole Christian Church, and the whole redeemed world, as we sing the indicated hymn of prayer, no. 368: Kyrie eleison.
 Luther’s translation.
 Daniel 4:17, Luther’s translation: Solches ist im Rat der Wächter beschlossen und im Gespräch der Heiligen beratschlaget…KJV: This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men.
 Exodus 15:3 (Luther’s translation: Der Herr ist der rechte Kriegesmann.)
 Psalm 46:10 (Luther’s translation: Der den Kriegen steuert in aller Welt; der Bogen zerbricht, Spiesse zerschlaegt, und Wagen mit Feuer verbrennt.)
 Revelation 6:8 (Luther’s translation: Und siehe, und ich sah ein fahl Pferd, und der daraufsaß, des Name hieß Tod, und die Hölle folgte ihm nach.)
 Psalm 46:9 (Luther’s translation: Kommt her, und schauet die Werke des Herrn, der auf Erden solch Zerstoeren anrichtet…)
 i.e. the Litany.
16th Sunday after Trinity (10:45 Church Picnic Service)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 7:11-17
September 11, 2016
“The Victory Remained with Life”
It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
The reign of death was ended. LSB 458
I imagine everyone here who was alive will never forget what happened fifteen years ago on this day. Strange and dreadful strife appropriately describes what I saw on tv all day that day in 2001, and for the next several weeks. It was strange—the world felt strange for weeks afterwards. Strange to watch an airliner come screaming into a skyscraper and explode into an orange ball; strange to watch Manhattan fill with atomized concrete and pieces of paper—who knew that that was what comes out of a skyscraper when it falls—white paper everywhere! It didn’t feel real.
It didn’t feel real because the World Trade Center and the New York Stock Exchange and the giant metropolises of our country and the airports that enable people to do business one side of the country in the morning and go home in the evening—that’s what feels real to us. What happened on September 11th in 2001 was—for just a day—we saw how fragile our reality is. For a second we sensed that our reality is not real.
They said on the news people went back to church for a little while after the attacks. Maybe that’s because people realized that our American way of life—represented by skyscrapers and jet airlines and megalopolises and stock exchanges—aren’t God. Some fanatics screaming Allahu akbar fly four planes the wrong way and two of the world’s tallest buildings collapse, one of the most important cities in the world shuts down, and the whole country goes into shock. The gods we trusted in didn’t fall over; they just swayed a little. But for a second we realized they are false gods. There is another God who can knock them over in a second. It inspired dread in the whole country. Every time we saw replayed on television the flying into the tower—something that isn’t supposed to happen!—it was a voice that said, There is another God who with a flick of His finger can destroy this whole country. He can destroy the whole world if He wants to. And He just let us know that He might not be happy with us.
We saw death that day.
Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. He said that when he saw the first bomb dropped on Hiroshima he thought of a passage from a Hindu scripture: I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Death destroys worlds on a smaller scale every day. The widow from Nain who lost her son, for instance.
And sometimes death destroys the worlds of people who haven’t died. People who live in marriages where love has died and they have stopped hoping that it can be brought back to life. People whose life has been interrupted, scarred, by illness, chronic pain, or depression. People who had bright idealistic hopes to accomplish something with their lives who now laugh bitterly at their youthful selves.
A surprising number of people say things like, “I think God hates me” in response to death or suffering. You hear it expressed more frequently than you’d expect by people that aren’t religious at all.
The voice that whispers that God hates us is closer to the truth than the voice that says God never would do anything so harsh. The truth is that everyone who sins provokes God’s anger and hatred, comes under His curse. Paul writes in Romans chapter 5, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God…” (Romans 5:10). We were God’s enemies, Paul writes to the Christians at Rome—not just that we hated God, but He hated us, because we followed the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience. Among these we all once lived…following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:2-3). Doing what comes naturally, following the desires of our bodies and our minds, we, along with the whole world, were following the devil and were “children of wrath”. God was full of anger toward us. He was angry enough with us to give us pain in this life, kill us, and sentence us to eternal torment. All this because we followed the desires of body and mind that we were born with, desires which add up to wanting to be like God, to do what pleases us and answer to no one.
God was angry with us, angry enough to destroy our worlds. And He had been angry for a long time with us. And has anything changed? Has God gotten over His anger? From what we can see in the world, there is no reason to think so. People still die; they are still receiving the wages of sin (Romans 6).
And the widow from Nain? Sin had just cut her a check too.
The truly terrible thing about coming to the knowledge of sin is that—unless God’s heart is changed—there is no relief and no way out. The teachers of the Jews told people that repentance would atone for their sins and bring about a change in God’s heart toward them. But who could be sure they had repented enough to change God’s heart? The only sure way would be to never sin again. The widow, if she believed what the rabbis taught, couldn’t be sure if her son was in heaven or hell, nor which way she would go when she followed after her son into death.
Now the rabbis said that people should join in any funeral procession they came across. To do this was to do something that found favor with the Lord; it was good in His eyes, and it would help take away His anger at your sins or increase His love for you.
Jesus, who is the Lord, doesn’t do what He’s supposed to do. He doesn’t get out of the way. Instead He has compassion on her, which is to say He feels her grief like a stab in his own stomach. He says, “Don’t cry.” He moves past her, up to the stretcher on which men are carrying the body of her son, and reaches out and touches it. They suddenly stop. They are probably in shock that he would touch the dead body and contaminate Himself with the uncleanness of sin and death. Then Jesus simply says, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” And the man sits up and starts to speak, and Jesus gives him back to his mother.
The crowd’s response to this is interesting. They call Jesus a great prophet and say that God has visited His people. They are also stricken with fear, but they still praise God for the miracle.
That they are afraid is not surprising, really. To see a man tell a dead man to rise, and the dead man does so—that would shake your world more than the twin towers falling. If the technology and wealth are reality to us, death is even more so. To see someone dismiss death with a few words is to behold power. When they say “God has visited His people,” they are more right than they know. They think it means that God has sent a great prophet through whom He will work to deliver them.
But a prophet, like Elijah, doesn’t raise the dead like this. A prophet calls on God, and God in answer sends His limitless power to raise the dead. But Jesus didn’t do that; He spoke the word that raised the young man from the dead Himself. They are afraid when they see Jesus as a prophet who can pray to God to raise the dead and be heard. They cannot fathom that in the man they see all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Colossians 2). If they could they would probably run.
But God is not there in human flesh to destroy or to give out the due reward for our sins. He is here to change the reality of death.
He is on earth to reconcile God and human beings. To take away God’s anger toward us and replace it with love and favor. To take away God’s anger toward mankind means to take away sin. And where sin and God’s anger is taken away, death goes with them.
Jesus doesn’t preach in this Gospel. This is an illustration of His preaching.
Jesus didn’t preach like Moses; He still doesn’t preach that way today. His preaching was not about what you should avoid, what God wants you to do, the rewards and punishments that go with obedience and disobedience. The substance of Jesus’ preaching was Himself.
I have come, He preached and still preaches, to make a sacrifice to God. I offer up my life of holy obedience, and my agony and dying, to God for you.
When Jesus is dragged out through the gates of Jerusalem carrying His cross to the place of His death and burial, God will impute to Him the sins of the world. And Jesus will feel the agony of those sins and God’s anger as He hangs on the cross. He will feel the sins of the world as His own sins, and the wrath of God as His own wrath, and cry out that He is forsaken by God. Until He gives up His spirit and hangs dead on the cursed tree. And by submitting to sin, death, and God’s wrath, He undoes it—this reality that is the only one the world knows.
But by this suffering God will be reconciled to the world and all the sinners in it. And that is how things stand now. People can’t figure this out from looking at the world. They can only learn this in the church where Jesus continues His prophetic ministry through the pastors who preach Christ (and not the wisdom of men.) The message is that God is reconciled to the world and no longer counts the sins of men against them. Which is to say, God has forgiven the world and all the sinners in it. His anger has been discharged. Our sins have been blotted out. When Jesus offered up His holy life, His agony and His death, God’s anger against us was spent, and His favor came in its place.
The debt of our sins was paid and the price for our release, and the receipt was Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
And if sin and God’s anger has gone, then so has the power of death. Death is different for those who believe in Christ.
The grave is no longer a place of uncleanness. It is a holy place, sanctified by the body of the Holy One who laid there before us and was resurrected in glory. So our grave is the holy place out of which we will rise imperishable, never to die, never to weep, never again to sin.
And dying no longer has the sting and terror of God’s wrath, the despair of being abandoned for those who believe in Christ. God’s wrath ended on the cross, that Jesus was forsaken once, so that God will never forsake us.
And the deaths we experience in life also are not death to Christians who cling to Jesus. Neither pain, nor sickness, nor failure can separate us from the joy, life, and victory we have in Him. In Jesus we have God’s good pleasure; in Him God says of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”—because Jesus has done well. Because of what Jesus has already done for the world, God regards and declares us to be righteous in His sight, overruling the accusation of our conscience, the raised voices of those who know our sins, even the curse of the Law on our works.
This meeting of the two crowds was a foreshadowing of the strange and dreadful strife that happened on Calvary. There were crowds there too, but only two wrestlers—the eternal Son, pinned to the tree and forsaken by God, and Satan, wanting to hold all people in bondage to sin and death. It was a strange and dreadful strife…
The victory remained with life. A new reality emerged from this struggle. It appeared that Satan had won, that He had claimed Jesus with all the men who had come before Him. They took Him down from the cross. No one stopped the funeral procession. They laid Jesus in the tomb and rolled the stone to shut it. And then…you know the rest of the story. Those who go to the tomb to mourn, honor the dead, pay their debt to death, find that the world has changed. The tomb is empty. The book recording the world’s transgressions has become clean white paper. The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.
When we come out of our graves we will see how true that hymn is. A little rest in the earth. Then these mortal bodies will put on immortality.
A little cross and suffering here with our Lord. Then God will wipe every tear from our eyes.
But we should not forget that life is ours now before the resurrection. It lives within us, in these jars of clay that break so easily. And when they break it shows the more clearly that the life within us is not from us. When you break, and your world is destroyed by death, God is giving you a new world, and bearing witness to this world of the life of the world to come.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death;
Its sting is lost forever.
Alleluia! LSB 458
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
In Memoriam + Martin Herman Laufer (Committal)
Abraham Lincoln Nation Cemetery
1 Corinthians 15:51-57
August 30, 2016
Behold! I tell you a mystery.
The words of Paul the apostle are some 1950 years old. What he wrote was something that defied human reason when he wrote it to the Greek Christians in Corinth. A mystery. Today we experience the weight of that word: “mystery.” Christians say the words of the creed every Sunday, but seldom do we confront the weight of what we say we believe like we do here, in a cemetery, with a casket before us holding the body of one we loved. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
It should not come as a surprise that many people simply don’t believe it, and even we who say that we do
believe it do so with trembling, fear, and weakness. Who has the ability to believe this mystery? No one. This kind of faith is itself a miracle as great as the resurrection. This is not a sentimental faith. It looks at this coffin and says, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Martin Herman Laufer was a gifted man. He lived a long life, nearly a century long. He lived a life of exceptional devotion and service to Christ’s Church. He had the ability to lead and influence people, and those abilities are evidenced by his work in the armed service, as a business owner, a salesman, as a leader of the churches in which he was a member. He touched many people’s lives; many people at St. Peter talked to me about how he was an example to them of how to live as a Christian. My wife and I remember the kindness he showed us when we arrived newly married to St. Peter only a little while before he moved to Litchfield.
Of course, we know all too well that a person’s gifts, abilities, kindness are not enough to overcome death and the grave. “The wise man dies just like the fool” (Ecclesiastes 2:16). So death makes ordinary people out of us all.
Since this is true, how can we listen to these words today and apply them to Marty: “Death is swallowed up in victory”? Surely these words, if they apply to any human being, are beyond the reach of ordinary people?
They are. But there is something that is drawn over the lives of ordinary people that puts this victory shout on Paul’s lips. After a strange experience he had while travelling to Damascus, he spent his life on what his former colleagues considered a fool’s errand or worse. He spent his life preaching a man who had died the way ordinary people do—or really a far worse way. He spent his life preaching Jesus, who suffered and died by crucifixion, a death reserved for slaves and criminal. There was no glory, no beauty, no heroism in a crucifixion—only pain, ugliness, weakness, and shame. Yet, Paul preached, God raised this Jesus from the dead. He went around preaching the shameful death of this Jesus, a death that filled his hearers with horror. And he went around preaching Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, an idea that the Greeks considered ridiculous.
Yet in the suffering of this Jesus, said Paul, God had taken on Himself human weakness, our guilt and our curse. In this death—all too ordinary, this all too familiar suffering, humiliation, and dying—God was present. Jesus was the Creator of human beings now become a human being, sharing our weakness, our shame, our death. In His resurrection the guilt and the death of all people—the noble and the base, the honorable and the shameful, the weak and the strong—was broken. And those who believe in this Jesus preached by Paul, and who were baptized into Him, have their lives caught up in Him and hidden in Him.
Over Marty’s entire life God drew the life of Jesus, the cross of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus. Long ago, Marty’s life was caught up in another life and another death—that of Jesus—when, in 1918, water and the name of the Triune God poured over his head.
Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable…Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory.
The hope God gives us today for Marty is the same hope He holds out to everyone here who is a sinner and is subject to death. Our hope is that God has entered into our lowliness, suffered our death, and risen again in righteousness. And that we who are men like any other are victorious, and will be victorious over death, because God drew the life of Jesus, the cross of Jesus, over our lives when we were baptized. Our victory is not in heroic works or achievements on earth, not in our piety or holiness on earth; our victory is the lowliness, the agony and death of Jesus, and His resurrection.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
Ninth Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 16:1-9
July 24, 2016
Wise Stewardship: Using Money to “Make Friends”
“Be a good steward.” I don’t know how much people outside the church say that. But we do say it inside the church. “Be a good steward.” What does that mean? Usually when a person says, “Be a good steward,” they mean you shouldn’t waste money. If you leave the lights on all day, that would be being a bad steward.
In the Bible that is definitely part of what a steward does—ensure that money is not wasted. A steward is an officer or employee who oversees or administers a large estate. Probably no one in our congregation is wealthy enough to need a steward; but if you were a rich man in biblical times who owned a lot of land, had a lot of servants or slaves, you would have a steward. The steward’s job would be to manage your estate. He would keep track of the finances, buy the things needed for the household—food, drink, clothing. He would probably decide what the servants got to eat, pay them, supervise them; and he would be responsible for the upkeep of the property.
So a good steward would be one who minimized waste. He would make sure the servants were doing their jobs. But there is something even more important that this for a steward—that he faithfully represents his master. The steward carried out this job of managing household affairs for the master. The money belongs to the master, not him. So it might seem to the steward like the best use of money to have the servants only drink water at dinner. But if he knows the master wants them to also have wine, a good steward gives them wine. Good stewardship is faithfully handling the master’s property for the master’s benefit; but even more importantly it is knowing the master’s will and carrying it out.
Our Lord tells a story about a steward in today’s Gospel, but this isn’t a good steward. The Lord calls him an “unrighteous” or “unjust” steward. He’s unrighteous because he wastes the master’s possessions; then, when he gets caught, he gives more of his master’s wealth away in order to make friends who will help him when he gets fired.
The first thing to take away from this story is to think about what it would be like to be in the steward’s shoes after he talked to his boss. Now his master could have had him put in prison or whipped; for all he knows that may still happen. Imagine the shame he would have felt. As a steward for this man, he was higher on the social ladder than most people—than all the people who owed his master money. Now he’s about to be put out. He’ll be known as a thief and a cheat, because that’s what a person is who wastes or mismanages what doesn’t belong to him. He’ll be put to shame.
On top of that he has no way to provide for himself. He can’t start doing manual labor in middle or old age after pushing a pen his whole life He’s ashamed to be, which would be his only other option. Where is he going to go? Who will take him in?
In the chapter right before this one we have the story of the prodigal son, who was in a similar position. His father gave him his inheritance and he wasted it on women and booze. After that he tried to work, but his boss treated his pigs better than him. He was starving. He was at the end of himself. That’s where the steward is when the master removes him from being steward.
Maybe you can relate with his situation. You were living in a way that wasn’t right and one day, it caught up with you and there seemed to be no way out without your life or reputation being destroyed. Or maybe you can’t really relate—not that you never did anything wrong—but you never did anything where the cost of getting found out was so great—personal shame, the loss of your livelihood.
Yet Jesus tells this parable not to the Pharisees or the tax collectors and sinners, but to His disciples. He told it to the people 2000 years ago, but He also tells it to His disciples today, to us; and at the end He applies it to us: “I tell you, make yourself friends with unrighteous mammon, that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” (Luke 16:9) By saying this Jesus puts us in the position of the unrighteous steward. He tells us to follow the example of the unrighteous steward and act wisely so that we may enter the eternal dwellings of His Father’s house.
Yes, you are the unrighteous steward, and just like him, your stewardship is about to be taken away from you. In the Small Catechism, which all of us have sworn on oath that we believe it to be a faithful and true witness of the doctrine of God’s Word and that we would suffer death rather than fall away from it, we say in the first article that “God has given me…everything I need to support this body and life…”; “clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have…” Since God has given us all our created goods and earthly possessions, it is our duty to “thank and praise, serve and obey Him.” He gave us, and still gives us, our earthly possessions, not to do with as we please, but to manage for Him, to steward for Him. Just like Adam didn’t own the garden of Eden; His job was to be a steward of it in the stead of God.
But you haven’t faithfully managed the earthly possessions God has entrusted to you, just like Adam your father was not a faithful steward of the Garden of Paradise. As a result your stewardship will soon be taken away from you. You will soon be separated from money, clothes, house, home, cars, electronics, gadgets, and toys; from your family, your wife and children and grandchildren, your friends—even from your own body.
And if God is the one taking this stewardship of possessions and life and all created things away from you, who is going to take you in? Who is going to help you?
That’s the dire situation you are in, along with the whole world, according to the law. That is the just punishment of being an unrighteous steward of the possessions over which God has given you authority.
You may not feel like this is true. You’ve done your best, been a respectable manager of your finances. You’ve donated to church and to charities. And you may be financially responsible—not a spendthrift, not wasteful. But being a faithful steward of God’s gifts is more than being prudent with money or having a good head for business.
It’s true; squandering what God gives you is also unfaithful stewardship. Not watching your money, buying luxuries you can’t afford or don’t need (as so many do)—that’s not faithful stewardship either. Spendthrifts are certainly also unrighteous stewards. But being a faithful steward is not just a matter of saving money or making money. It’s using what you Lord gives you the way He wants it used.
If you are a Christian you know how God wants you to use the money and possessions He gives you, because it flows from His Law. He has commanded you, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart”, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. First God commands you to love Him and your neighbor from the heart, in truth. From this love will flow action. Love that does not act when it can is not love. If you love God and your neighbor you show it not by spending money on yourself and living in luxury and comfort beyond what you need. If you love God and your neighbor you use your money to honor God. And since God doesn’t need money, you honor Him by helping your neighbor with it.
But you haven’t done this; you’ve mismanaged what God put under your authority. We use our body, senses, and mind to sin against God often. But just as often people use the wealth He has entrusted against Him. People think of their possessions as their own instead of gifts from the One who created them. Then they think, idolatrously, that it was their own intelligence or work that earned them instead of seeing that God gave them to us without our deserving them. Then they use those possessions for themselves and their family alone and ignore the needs of people who aren’t immediately related to them. Worse, some don’t even help their own parents, brothers and sisters, or provide for their children. They spend money to please themselves and let their family go without. And some don’t even do that; they simply let others pay for them. Instead of working to provide for themselves and have something to give to those who truly have nothing, they are glad to take what others work for. And still others do work, put money away; but then they put their trust in that money to keep them safe and provide for them. They make an idol of their money and look to it for salvation instead of God.
Whichever misuse of possessions describes you, the result is the same; you are an unrighteous steward. And the righteous God has served notice that you will be removed from your stewardship. All created gifts He has given to you will soon no longer be yours to manage. He will strip them all from you at death; and then you are to be sent to prison to await your final sentence on judgment day.
This is the sentence that we all face for not rightly stewarding what God has put under our charge, for seeing it as our own instead of using it for our neighbor’s blessing. You ought to know about this from the Bible and the Catechism. But even those outside the Church know this; their conscience tells them that it’s true. Even apart from God’s law unbelieving people show them that they have not been faithful with what has given to them. You can see it in politics. Some people deal with the nagging sense that they have been unrighteous stewards by pushing for government spending to provide for every kind of need, not regarding that there are problems that money can’t fix and that many times dependency on the government to provide for you is worse than the problems it’s supposed to solve. Others insist on the right of private property (which is mandated by God’s law) and claim that higher taxes make everyone poorer by hurting the economy. But behind the argument on both sides there is the testimony of the conscience that God requires us to love our neighbor and to help the poor and helpless, and that our own selfishness has often kept us from doing so.
Now when the prodigal son had wasted his father’s money and was doomed to die he returned to his father. The unjust steward, however, did not go to his master and ask for forgiveness. Instead, Jesus tells us, he acted shrewdly or wisely with the little time he had left as steward. He made himself “friends” with his master’s money. And strangely, at the end of the story his master, whom he cheated, praised him for behaving “wisely” or “shrewdly”.
So Jesus tells unrighteous stewards—that is, us—to also behave “shrewdly” or “wisely” with the little time we have left as stewards of money and possessions. He tells us to “make friends with unrighteous mammon” (v. 9) so that when we no longer have it, these friends will receive us into the eternal mansions of heaven.
This is a strange thing for Jesus to say, isn’t it? If God is the One taking away our stewardship because we have been unrighteous in it, are we supposed to think we can enter heaven by making friends with other people? How does befriending other people change the fact that God has found us unfaithful in what He’s given us to do?
Besides, the unrighteous steward’s actions were selfish from top to bottom. When he is fired, he has no remorse about robbing his master, no shame at his thieving and treachery. He’s only worried about the punishment he’s going to receive as a result. There’s not a whiff of repentance in his thinking over the wrong he did his master.
And when he thinks up his plan, he doesn’t care anything about his master’s debtors either. They’re just tools to him. He reduces their debts—robbing his master again—but he has no love for them. He just wants to stay off the street when he’s no longer steward. Surely Jesus isn’t saying you can enter eternal life this way—with no sorrow for robbing God, with no love for your neighbor—only showing him kindness because you are looking out for yourself, trying to avoid hell.
Of course not. We don’t enter eternal life by giving to the poor, or making friends, or by any work of ours. The praise of the Father in heaven comes to us when we believe in His Son, who bore our guilt, suffered God’s wrath for our sins, and fulfilled His Law. You receive God’s praise and He regards you as righteous without your works, solely through faith in Jesus, the righteous One, as a gift.
So then why does Jesus say to make friends by means of unrighteous mammon, and that these friends will receive you into the eternal dwellings? He is exhorting those who believe in Him to demonstrate their faith in Him by their actions. Real faith in Jesus is not just inert knowledge that floats in our hearts like a soap bubble floats on water in the sink. Faith in Jesus is living and active and it proves its existence by what it does. Original sin isn’t dead and motionless either. It shows itself and its unbelief in God, its idolatry, by worshipping created things like money, trusting in them, and being unwilling to give them up even when your neighbor needs them. Just like this, real faith in Christ shows itself by using whatever we have—our body and our possessions—in service to our neighbors.
Think about Jesus. He was equal to the Father. He had no reason, for Himself, to become a human being and to become subject to the Law. He had nothing to gain for Himself by doing this. He was the eternal Son of the Father, equal to Him. Yet He laid this aside and made Himself our slave. He subjected Himself to the Law’s demands and fulfilled it so that His obedience would be credited to us, who cannot fulfill it. Then He took on Himself the guilt of our unrighteousness—our misuse of the things God created and put under our authority. He presented Himself to God with this guilt. He was crucified and lifted up on the cross. He received God’s eternal wrath against our sin to take it away so that it would no longer be on us. Jesus did all of this for no other reason than to benefit and save us. You could say He did it to make us His friends and friends of God through faith in Him.
Now if a person believes this—not merely understands it, but actually trusts it and relies on it, trusts in this Jesus, does it make sense that that person would remain selfish, cold toward God and other people? That would be impossible. Believing this, a person begins to love God who so loved him (even if he remains selfish.) Believing this, a person is sure that he has eternal life (even if unbelief is still present with him); and being sure of eternal life as a gift from Christ he can’t set his heart on money and earthly possessions, since he already has the highest good. Instead a person is willing to give those things to help his neighbor as His Savior did for him. And even if his flesh drags him back and makes him want to live for himself, a Christian is constantly told by the Scripture that the faith in his heart needs to be shown in action. That faith is always followed by love. If there is no love, there is no faith in Jesus.
“Make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness” is what a Christian already wants to do. He wants to “make friends” by loving his neighbor so that his neighbor can hear the good news and be saved. He lays down his life for his neighbor because Christ has done so for him.
That’s what Christ regards as good stewardship—putting our whole lives—particularly money—to work in service to our neighbor, for his well-being on earth and in eternity. A good steward doesn’t waste money—but to worldly eyes it might look like it, like a Christian is just giving money away, spending it on something with no tangible return. Well, that’s what Christ did. He spend His whole life serving people who were by nature His enemies. Most of them were ungrateful and still are; many others tried to take advantage of His generosity. Others used it against Him to kill Him or blaspheme Him. He seems to have gotten no return on His investment. What was His reward? Simply to see those who received Him at His Father’s right hand, experiencing life and joy instead of death. When we invest in those things for others, that is when we are good stewards. And those who believe cannot help being good stewards. Ephesians 2:10 says: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
When we “make friends” by our use of money because of faith in Christ, those who have become Christians as a result of our giving will welcome us into heaven. Along with Jesus they will testify that we belong to His Church. And it will be our joy for eternity that God worked through us to lead someone to salvation. But even on earth, the good works arising from faith in Christ cause people to praise God for us. Jesus says elsewhere, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matth. 5:16) On judgment day even unbelievers will glorify God and testify to the good works He did through us in this world: “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12) And when Jesus judges, He doesn’t talk about our faith but our works. At the beginning of the book of Revelation, He dictates letters to seven churches, and He begins five of those letters by saying “I know your works.” In none of them does He say, “I know your faith.” Faith is made manifest by works. When good works are missing or weak in a congregation, so is faith.
At St. Peter we have watched our attendance decline for forty years. We say, “Other churches were built and drew away members. Then the neighborhood turned bad, and that scared lots of people away. On top of this, now the country is abandoning Christianity. And the young people are no longer interested in church—at least not how we do it here.”
All these statements are largely true. But I ask you—what have our efforts been like to “make friends by means of unrighteous mammon”? I’m not saying we should hand out bribes to get people to come to church. But does reaching out to the lost cost nothing? Are the megachurches spending nothing in their effort to draw people by means of entertainment? I promise you, they are spending lots of money. But it costs money to have the word of God in a congregation at all. Christ ordained that ministers should receive their living from their labor in preaching God’s Word. And if we wanted to do more to spread the Gospel—call a youth worker or a Spanish-speaking missionary—wouldn’t it take money? And if we invested ourselves in getting to know the needs in our community and trying to help meet those needs, that also would cost money. How many of us give sacrificially at St. Peter, give freely enough of what God has given us to manage that we are forced to give up some pleasure or convenience we would otherwise have? That would be almost unheard of in America, but Jesus seems to expect that His disciples will do this.
But if we did this, it wouldn’t really be giving what is ours; what we think of as “ours” really belongs to our master, and we are only stewarding it for a very short while longer. And in giving away what belongs to God we also assure ourselves that our faith in Christ is real.
But what about as a congregation? How willing has our congregation been to give and risk what God has given to us for the well-being and salvation of our neighbors?
Where this fruit is missing in an individual, it shows that the person’s faith in Christ is missing. In congregations, God always retains a remnant of those with living faith, as long as His Word is preached faithfully. But it can happen that congregations largely ignore and reject that Word, and the Lord removes the congregation’s lampstand.
So what should be done? If you are convicted that you have not used your money and possessions to make friends and demonstrate your faith in Christ—what then? Or if you have, but not sufficiently, what then? Or if you’re not sure?
The answer is the same as it has always been. Believe the Gospel that has been preached to you. How Jesus the Son of God has given all He is to make you a friend of God. That apart from your works or your lack of works, God regards you as righteous and faithful only through His work and faithfulness.
And then grow in the knowledge of that word. Don’t let it be idle, so that you know less of it next year than you did last year. Don’t let it be stagnant. Grow in the knowledge of His Word. Regularly receive the sacrament with the desire to grow in faith and love. Knowledge of His Word doesn’t automatically result in growth in faith and good works; a person can have a dead knowledge of His Word. But where His Word is not learned, faith and love won’t grow either.
And then strive to ensure that your faith and knowledge is not barren.
Give generously to your own congregation. That means not simply what you have left over after everything else—but the first and the best. The church has always used 10 percent as a guideline.
Give generously to the churches where the Gospel is spreading and growing. In Africa and Asia and Latin America the Lutheran Church is growing. But those churches are truly poor. They don’t have money and their pastors don’t have access to education and theological training. Above what you give to your congregation, cause the Christians in distant lands to give thanks to God. Use your unrighteous mammon, which so easily becomes an idol, to benefit the Church there.
Finally use your wealth to benefit the truly needy and helpless. The founders of our synod believed that congregations should not allow their poor members to be cared for by the state. Truly needy members of the body of Christ should be provided for by the rest of the body. And helping those who are in need outside the church, when it is done in sincere love, gives glory to God and sometimes opens the door to proclaim the Gospel to those outside the Church.
Faithful stewardship isn’t limited to how we handle money; it also includes how we give our time and share our talents with the body of Christ. But we will return to that in the fall.
Those who sincerely believe the Gospel will also make that known by using their wealth not to enjoy this life only but to work for the salvation of their neighbor. A person not seeking to use his wealth this way is unwise, because he is giving evidence that his faith in Christ is dead, even though he is soon to give an account of his stewardship to his master and Lord. But those who use their wealth to seek their neighbor’s welfare are shrewd. They are investing in heavenly treasure, and giving evidence that they are not only friends of their fellow-men but also friends of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria