Second Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 14:15-24
June 5, 2016
On Friday I was at Sunny Hill nursing home, where the Missouri Synod Lutheran churches around Joliet have a service each week for the people who live there. After the service I gave communion to a member of St. Peter who lives there. I was taking the elevator up from the lower floor and a lady got in. I heard a little accent in her voice that I thought I recognized, and I asked her if she was from Africa. No, she said, Trinidad (which is an island near South America). I told her how my grandpa and uncles lived in Africa, so I always ask people when they sound like they’re from Africa. “Oh,” she said, “where in Africa did your uncles live?” “Zambia and Zimbabwe,” I said. She said, “I went on a mission trip to Zimbabwe not too long ago.”
“Yes, there is a great spiritual hunger there,” she said. “People have great joy in serving the Lord and a great desire to hear His Word. Here, in order for people to worship properly you have to spend time coaxing them, cranking them up.”
I thought about this after we talked. I am sure that if we got into what proper, acceptable worship to God is, we would not have agreed. Emotion and excitement are not what makes worship acceptable to God. True worship is in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24), says Jesus. That doesn’t mean that we are emotional in our worship; it means that we have true faith in Christ as our Savior. From this faith in Jesus that our sins are forgiven comes thanksgiving toward God.
Still, she had a point. Acceptable worship of God can’t mean that we simply show up and say words in which neither our hearts nor our minds are engaged. Acceptable worship of God—faith in Christ—affects our hearts, our words, and our actions. Believing that our sins are forgiven, that we are saved, must produce joy and thanksgiving—and joy and thanksgiving toward God—how can it not affect the way that we sing, the way we listen to God’s Word, the way we treat each other?
By all accounts, there is a great spiritual hunger in Africa and places in Asia. These have been mission fields for a long time. In many places the missionaries worked for years and saw few results. But now a harvest is coming in. I often hear and read from Lutheran missionaries in Africa that the pastors eagerly desire to be trained more fully in Lutheran doctrine and to have the Lutheran Confessions and other theological works in their languages. Meanwhile the people in the churches come in great numbers to be baptized, to hear the Word of God, and to receive our Lord’s body and blood. It must be exciting to see so many people turning to God and desiring what He offers in the Gospel.
But how are things in our country? It’s not so easy for us. People don’t appear to be very interested in spiritual things. There was a time when people came to church on their own. Now, with younger people, they don’t. And if the church goes to them—which, to be sure, we don’t do like we should—sometimes we find that people are opposed to Christianity. More often, it seems that people are able to “take it or leave it.” They aren’t necessarily hostile, if you don’t say anything that offends them. They just don’t care that much.
But it’s not just outside of the Church. There is a lack of spiritual hunger inside the Church as well—isn’t there? Real hunger isn’t a pleasant feeling, but it has a purpose—to make you eat. Eating is necessary to maintain life, but it’s also necessary to grow. On earth, there are no Christians that are full-grown. When we are perfectly in the image of Jesus and there is no sinful flesh left in us, then we will be full-grown. But if you are not yet perfectly like Christ, you still have to grow. And yet most Christians don’t eat enough spiritual food to grow; they come and hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper on Sundays, or on Sundays when they aren’t doing something else. But they don’t continue to learn God’s Word after they are confirmed. They don’t read the Bible in their families and privately. Most of us don’t know Scripture and Christian doctrine as well as we did when we were confirmed. Others who do often neglect prayer and devotion, so that we are weak in spirit—not having grown in the life of prayer and lacking in love and trust in God in affliction. Then we wonder why our lives as Christians are so disappointing and why the Church seems to be dying in our country.
One way to look at Jesus’ parable in Luke 14 that we heard is to see it as a parable about the lack of spiritual hunger and the consequences of this lack.
In the parable, Jesus is eating at a Pharisee’s house. One of the guests at the table with him expresses what appears to be a very devout, pious desire. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15) The man talks like he would give anything to participate in God’s kingdom. But Jesus tells this story to show the hypocrisy of his statement: God has invited you to the banquet of His kingdom, Jesus is saying, but you are refusing to come.
Jesus begins his parable like this: “A man once gave a banquet and invited many” (Luke 14:16). It’s pretty obvious who this “man” is—it’s God. God is constantly feeding people throughout the Scripture, and He constantly makes invitations to people to come to Him and receive rest and refreshment. God also promises throughout the Bible that the day is coming when He will prepare a great feast, a great celebration, and all who come and eat His food will live forever. The great example of this is the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 25: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces…” (Isaiah 25:6-8)
You see the way Isaiah describes this feast. God isn’t offering a crust of bread or peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches. He makes a feast of “rich food”, of “well-aged wine.” This is a banquet for kings that God is making. And besides the exquisite food is the honor of the host. If you are invited to a banquet at the White House, you don’t go just because you know the food will be good. You go because of the honor of being invited to the White House by the most powerful person in the world.
God has also made a banquet and invited many people. To be invited is an honor higher than any of the honors in the world. And besides this He puts exquisite food on the table. The food of God’s banquet is the Gospel of His Son. He spreads out before us a table of spiritual delicacies—forgiveness of our sins, righteousness before God, rescue from hell and the devil, the right to be sons of God and sit at His right hand, the gift of His Spirit. And all these come to us through His Son—God with us, God who became fully man, who fulfilled the law, bore our sins as His own, received our condemnation, and rose again with sin and death destroyed forever. Jesus is given to us as our spiritual food and drink in the Gospel. By faith in Him we live, by faith in Him we eat His body and drink His blood and receive eternal life.
“And at the time for the banquet He sent His servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’” (Luke 14: 17) That had already happened to the Pharisees and the leaders of the Jews. They had been invited a long time ago to this feast. God had promised their forefather Abraham that one of his descendants would bless the whole world, taking away the curse of sin and death. During the Advent midweek services for the past several years we have looked at the many promises God gave throughout the Old Testament concerning the Messiah of the Jews, the Christ. But now everything is ready. John the Baptist came and announced this to the Jews and told them to repent and be baptized to be ready for the Messiah and God’s banquet that would come through Him.
You also have been invited to God’s banquet. An alternate translation for the word “invited” in the reading is “called.” In the Small Catechism we learned to say about the 3rd article of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…
Whenever you have heard the good news of Jesus’ death for your sins, the Holy Spirit was calling you, inviting you, to believe in Jesus, that He died for your sins, and to receive His gifts. When you were baptized, that also was God’s call and invitation to you. He was pledging that eternal life and the forgiveness of sins was yours, just as the circumcision of the Jews was God’s pledge that His Son and all His benefits were theirs.
But what happens when God’s invitation goes out and tells people, “Everything is ready?” Jesus says, “But they all alike began to make excuses.” (Luke 14:18) One asks to be excused because he just bought a field, another because he just bought some oxen, and another because he just got married. Jesus is telling the Pharisees at the table that this is what they, and the leaders of the Jews, have done. They were invited by God to His banquet and were told: Everything is ready right now. But they made excuses instead of coming. The Jewish leaders were preoccupied with their jobs, their honor, with earthly possessions and desires. The religious leaders didn’t want to be baptized by John or follow Jesus because to do so would jeopardize their position. They would be admitting that their religious lives were not enough to make them righteous before God. Besides this they saw that Jesus was despised and didn’t have an earthly glory or kingdom and realized that to believe in Him would mean risking or losing their honor, their wealth, their prestige.
These were not unfounded fears. It’s true that to believe in Christ puts our honor, wealth, and security at risk. This is part of the reason that people don’t want to be Christians today, or leave churches that teach false doctrine.
Yet these fears also reveal a lack of spiritual hunger. A person who knows that he is a sinner and that without the forgiveness of sins he is lost doesn’t think about what he will lose on earth. He runs to the promise of forgiveness, come what may.
Yet how often it’s the case for us Christians that we put temporary goods over eternal blessings. Often we aren’t willing to sacrifice temporary comforts for the feast that God spreads before us. We think, “I already know that Jesus died for me and I’m forgiven, so it won’t matter if I don’t read the Bible, or if I skip church this once, or if I don’t take the opportunities to learn God’s Word and worship that are offered.” But believing the Gospel shouldn’t extinguish our spiritual hunger. If we believe in Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins, we should long for more of Jesus and His gifts. And as we receive more—as we read Scripture and hear preaching—it will reveal our need more clearly. God’s Word reveals more and more of our sinful nature and our inability to overcome it; it reveals our lack of fruit. God reveals this to us in His Word so that He can satisfy our hunger. As we see our sinfulness more clearly He shows us Jesus more clearly, so that we find our comfort in Him and His work alone.
So what happens when those invited send back their excuses? The owner of the house becomes angry.
‘Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and the hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” (Luke 14:21-24)
So what does the master do? He has a house all set for a banquet. Everything is ready. The linens are on the tables, the wine is poured, the meat is ready. But all the invited guests have refused to come. Does he cancel the banquet? No, he insists that his house should be filled. So he has his servant gather up all the outcasts, the dregs of society to fill his house—the poor, blind, lame, crippled. And since there is still room, he has the servant go outside the city and compel people from the highways to come to the banquet.
God did this with the Jews. When the leaders of the Jews refused to come to Christ, God gathered the outcasts of Israel. The poor, uneducated fishermen became Jesus’ disciples. Tax collectors and sinners came into God’s banquet and ate His rich food and drank His aged wine. They received the forgiveness of sins through Jesus and became righteous before God. Then God sent the apostles outside of the people of Israel to the pagan gentiles who were far from God, didn’t know the Scriptures, and worshipped idols. And these debased people—which includes us and our ancestors, who worshipped stones and statues and trees instead of the living God—came into God’s house, received the righteousness of Christ, were washed in His blood, and took their place among the righteous—Abraham and Moses and the prophets.
That is the end result of rejecting God’s Word; the end result of the lack of spiritual hunger. When people persistently refuse God’s invitation through the Gospel, He takes it away. Maybe we think the worst thing God could do to a country is let it be torn apart by violence, or impoverished through bad government, or let it be stricken by disease. No. The worst way God’s anger could strike us is if He takes His Word away.
Without His Word we can’t receive the forgiveness of sins; without His Word we can’t come to faith in Christ or stay in it. Yet so often we treat God’s Word not as a gracious invitation to eternal life, but as an interruption of the other things we would rather do, or even as a burden.
Yes, we do this, even the most devout. And so God makes His invitation again today: Everything is ready! Come to the banquet!
If you have neglected His Word. If you are spiritually poor, blind, and crippled, so that you think there is no way that you belong in God’s house, eating as His guest. If you have at times acted as if you had other things to do that were more important than coming to the banquet God has provided, behaved arrogantly.
He doesn’t insist that you make your heart better. He simply says, “Come, everything is now ready.” It is a free invitation—there is no cost. God has taken away your sins at His own cost, the cost of His Son. You only have to come and eat and drink—that is, believe that all your sins are forgiven through the suffering of Jesus.
If you don’t feel hunger—your sins don’t bother you particularly, you don’t feel your need as you should—still He invites you. Realize that this lack of hunger is itself a great sin. Then come, take your place with the crippled and the blind in God’s house.
God is gracious. He wants His house to be full for this feast, so there is room for each one of us who wants to come.
And what a table He prepares for us! “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, [that] God has prepared for those who love Him!” (1 Corinthians 3:9) The joy that we will have when we dwell with God in heaven we don’t know yet. There are not words on earth to express it. Yet we have the beginning of this feast now. Maybe it’s appropriate to say God gives us hors d’oeurves?
Before our eyes He portrays His Son crucified for our transgressions, declaring, “It is finished!” His call and invitation is to take Jesus at His Word. In the Sacraments and the Word, He gives us the promise that the forgiveness of our sins is accomplished. Along with that promise comes the promise of eternal life, resurrection from the dead, and union with the Triune God.
Whoever you are, come, says God, for everything is ready.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
In Memoriam + Robert F. Johnston
Carlson-Holmquist-Sayles Funeral Home
St. John 8:49-59 (Exodus 3:1-15, Revelation 21:1-6)
May 18, 2016
“The Living God and the Story of our Lives”
Nancy, Gail, and all of Bob’s relatives and friends:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we remember Bob this morning and seek to honor his life, I draw your attention to these words from the bible that drew Bob’s attention and were important to him: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58)
The reading from the eighth chapter of John’s gospel which we just heard is not one I’ve ever read at a funeral before. I’d bet most pastors have never used it. I chose it today because Bob mentioned the verse to me on several occasions when I came to visit him at his home to give him Holy Communion. I chose the first reading from Exodus because it helps understand the reading from John, what Jesus is really saying when He says, “I AM.”
This verse struck a chord with Bob. I know that because he mentioned it to me several times. “Hey Rev,” he said (he always called me Rev when I came over to see him), “I heard you on the radio Sunday, and you read that part where Jesus said, “I AM”. That really gets me.” I never really found out why that verse stuck with him. One of the times I saw him this year was the week following the Sunday where that reading is appointed to be read, the fifth Sunday in Lent, two weeks before Easter. I tried to engage him in a conversation about it to find out why it struck him, but he didn’t say. He just said, “That really gets to me.”
When I first came to St. Peter as a pastor, ten years ago, Bob was there every Sunday, sitting up in the balcony. After awhile I noticed he wasn’t coming anymore, so I called him up and put him on the list of homebound people to visit every month. So Bob was a faithful churchgoer, but not a preachy guy, not a guy to quote Scripture a lot. So that made it even more striking to me to hear him talk about that particular verse.
It wasn’t unusual for him to talk, though. Bob liked to talk, as you probably know. Well, he had a lot to talk about. He’d experienced a lot of things in his 94 years that I only read about in books. And I liked listening to him talk. He had a big, resonant voice. He’d talk and paint a picture for me about what it was like to grow up working-class in Joliet during the great depression. He talked about his dad working at a match factory and being unemployed for a number of years and how he started working young. He told me how when he started working at Commonwealth Edison when he was still in his early twenties he made good money and could afford to buy a new car. Listening to him, I heard about a different Joliet than the one I know. In that Joliet you could graduate from high school and get a good job. In that Joliet your parents were married when you were born and almost always stayed married. But while a lot of men grouse about how the country is going to hell when they get old, I didn’t hear a lot of that from Bob. He said it occasionally, but he didn’t dwell on it.
The thing he really liked to talk about was the second world war. Bob, as you probably know, was an MP, a military policeman. He was stationed in England for awhile, and then in Bavaria in a small town south of Munich called Bad Toelz—at least that’s what I understood from his stories. That was the headquarters of General George Patton. He had a funny story about how he was on guard duty and General Patton caught him grabbing some food in the kitchen.
He told me another story about how he was dating an English girl and she took him to her parents’ house in Brighton to meet her family. Her dad had some kind of important job. He didn’t realize at the time that she was hoping that Bob would marry her. “I was just a kid, Rev. I didn’t know anything then.” Bob experienced a lot of things and saw a lot more of the world than you would expect a young man from Joliet to see in those days.
Of course, even though Bob shared a lot of his life with me, there was so much we didn’t talk about. I heard from his great-niece Nancy how her memory of him was the way he doted on her children. He worked at Commonwealth Edison for decades. People who knew him from the Lion’s Club will have different memories. He shared many years with his wife Beverly who preceded him in death sixteen years ago.
The last several months I saw him he also talked about the experience of aging. Bob was 84 when I first came to St. Peter, so he was never exactly young when I knew him. But it was only in the last few months that I heard much about how aging was hard for him. I’d ask how he was, and he’d say, “Nothing works anymore, Rev. I can’t get around.” Then he’d say, “I’m just old, that’s all.” He’d also mention how he talked to God. “He helps me,” Bob said.
One thing we can say is that Bob lived a full life. He experienced a lot. He lived a long life, too. Ninety-four years is more than most people can expect. But his life leaves us with the question, “How do we make sense of it all? How do we tie all these experiences together? What did his life mean?” I’m pretty sure Bob was thinking about these questions in his last months. Most people do.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ words, “Before Abraham was, I AM,” stuck with Bob. I AM—not, “I was,” or “I will be.” The words tell of a Person who does not change. They aren’t words that normal human beings could say unless they are crazy. We change. We aren’t the same people we were when we were kids. When we get old, we look back at the people we were decades before and in many ways see another person.
When Jesus said this, He had already made another outlandish statement that offended the people who heard Him. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Those who heard him got angry. Look, they said, the greatest people who ever lived died. Abraham, Moses, the prophets. These people heard God speak, but they still died. Who do you think you are?
What they said was true. If you are a Jew or a Christian and believe God spoke to Moses and Abraham, you look at these people as being uniquely favored. They talked to God and knew Him intimately. Even so, they died. And if you’re not a Christian or a Jew the same principle applies. Every religious figure in world history, every great leader, philosopher, every hero still died. They were still men. They were not gods.
Christians say it’s because all human beings, no matter how great their accomplishments, are sinful. They may do great, heroic, even moral things. But they are born with the defect of sin, which means that they do wrong in the sight of God. Their thoughts, words, and actions don’t conform to God’s will. And Christians go further and say that people are born this way. They inherit guilt and brokenness from their parents, and that guilt and brokenness can be traced back to the very first man and woman, who turned away from God and did what He had forbidden. So even when human beings, like Abraham and Moses, know God, even speak with Him, they continue to carry the defect of sin with them. And sin’s result is always death.
When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I AM,” He was making it very clear to those who heard Him that He was the God who appeared to Abraham and Moses. We see this in the reading from Exodus. Moses is herding sheep in the desert and goes to see a strange thing—a bush that burns, but the fire does not go out. It keeps burning. And when he goes over to see it, a voice talks to him and declares itself to be “The God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” The voice tells Moses that he is going to go and bring God’s people out of slavery. And when Moses asks God, “What is your name?” God replies, “I AM Who I AM.”
When you ask another person who they are, they will tell you, “I am so-and-so’s son. I was born in this year. I grew up in this town. I do this or that for a living.” Our existence, our lives, are all conditioned by the existence of other things. Not so with the true God. He simply is.
And there is no one and nothing else like Him. He is who He is.
Everything else that exists depends on this God. We exist because He willed for us to exist. We live because He wanted us to live. He spoke, and the world came to be. Each thing and each person that exists lives because He willed it.
And yet human beings don’t know this Person who gave us life. Like people groping in the darkness for a doorknob or a light switch, we know that this God must exist, otherwise we wouldn’t. But we don’t know where to find Him.
And without Him we do not know who we are. The stories of our lives don’t hold together without Him. We are left to try to fashion an identity and a story for ourselves. Maybe this is the reason for the deep depression that so many people in our time feel. In the past, people used to be born with most of their identity decided for them. They received their identity from their sex, the class into which they were born, the nation into which they were born. But above all, their religion gave them a story that explained their place in the universe. Some of those stories told by religion limited people’s freedom. Many were false. And yet the very fact that people did not have to invent themselves and believed there was order in the universe and in their lives that came from above perhaps gave them more stability than people today, when everyone is expected to make up their own story.
What we need, though, is not simply to find a story for our lives that works for us and makes us happy, but turns out to be an illusion. We need to know the true story of our lives, and to know that we need to know the true God.
When Jesus says, Before Abraham was born, I AM—He is saying, “I am that God. I am the God from whom everything comes. I am the God who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. When you’re looking for the living God, the God of Israel, you will not find Him anywhere except in Me, the Son of Mary.”
This was scandalous to Jesus’ people, the Jews; and not only to them, but also to the pagans who later heard the Gospel from Jesus’ disciples. Jesus doesn’t look like a god, whether you are a Jew or a pagan. He doesn’t appear in a pillar of fire or sitting on a throne. And while the pagan gods were said to visit people in the appearance of human beings or animals, these were only temporary manifestations. But Jesus is a normal human being. He is not just pretending to be one for a little while. He really is a human being, and He lives among normal human beings. He works and preaches among the ordinary mortals whose names are not recorded in history books. Even worse, He even suffers like ordinary people. What God lets Himself be falsely accused and be nailed to a cross, the death of wicked people and slaves?
Even so, Jesus makes the claim that He is the living God, who not only gives meaning to our lives, but who also gives everlasting life—His life—to mortals.
Why would the living God appear as an ordinary man? Partly to make us know Him. By coming as one of us, and appearing like us, He shows His compassion, kindness, love. He is willing to live with us and experience all the pain normal human beings endure, the pain brought on by sin.
But more importantly, to unite us to Himself and His life. He came to take away the sin that separates us from Him and causes death. He did this by assuming our guilt and its penalty, suffering death by crucifixion and bearing the judgment of God against sinners.
Then He rose from the dead showing that unending life had been won for us.
Maybe that’s why that verse was so important to Bob—before Abraham was, I AM. The unknown God who gave meaning to His life and indeed gives meaning to all of our lives was with him. Jesus, who lived among ordinary mortals and became one of us, had entered Bob’s life.
How did Jesus enter Bob’s life? Jesus lived on earth two thousand years ago.
Yes, but before He ascended into heaven, Jesus commissioned His disciples to go in His name and make other disciples by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by teaching them His word. He promised to be present with His disciples—the baptized who believed His word—until the world ends.
So when Bob was baptized at St. Peter Lutheran Church in the early part of the last century, Jesus was there in the midst of His disciples. Bob was united to Jesus. He died and rose with Jesus, as we heard from Romans chapter 6. As he learned the word of Jesus, He was hearing the words of the living God which impart His everlasting life. As Bob received the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, his life received its meaning. He was no longer simply another sinful man born to die and after that face judgment and damnation. He was a man reclaimed from death and judgment by the death of another. As Bob ate Christ’s body and drank His blood, the living God was pledging that Bob had a new story—the story of a man who had been set free from judgment and death to live before God forever.
When Bob suffered at the end of his life and finally died, the story also had a different meaning. Apart from Christ, suffering and death are simply the well-deserved consequences of sin and unrighteousness. They are the prelude to condemnation. But in Christ, they are something else. Because the living God became human and suffered and died for our sins, our suffering and dying are the final act of our sharing Christ’s death so that we might also share His resurrection from the dead. Because the living God died for our sins, our death is not under God’s wrath; it is participating in the new story He tells about us, in which death is swallowed up by life, sin by righteousness, and those who have died are resurrected to live forever and share in the glory of God.
We heard about this in the reading from Revelation; when Christ returns and the dead are raised, this new story will be completed. Bob and all people who believe in the true God revealed in Christ will share Christ’s image. “ Now the dwelling of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
That is what is to come. That is what the Lord—I AM—wills for all people. And it belongs to all people who keep Jesus’ word—who believe in Him.
In that hope we commend Bob to His God, and ourselves also.