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
First Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
1 John 4:16-21
May 29, 2016
“Love as a State of Being”
There is a story that has stuck with me my whole life. It wasn’t one I read in college when I was supposed to be reading “great literature”. I think it must have been in grade school. It was called “The Gift of the Magi” by a writer named O. Henry.
It starts out with a young married woman who is holding a dollar and eighty-seven cents in her hand in small change. She is crying because this is all she has been able to save for months. Now it’s Christmas Eve and she wants to buy her husband a present, but she can’t get anything decent for one dollar and eighty-seven cents.
She and her husband are poor, and they have two things to their name that are valuable. One is her husband’s gold watch, an heirloom that has been passed down from his grandfather. The other is her long brown hair.
Suddenly she has an idea. She goes out and sells her hair. The lady who cuts it gives her twenty dollars. With that twenty dollars she goes out and buys a platinum watch chain for her husband’s heirloom watch.
She goes home, curls her now short hair, and starts making dinner. Her husband comes home and stands by the door staring at her, not able to say anything. When she finally gets him to talk again, he hands her a package. She opens it up to find a set of beautiful tortoise-shell combs that she had admired in a shop window.
She tells him that her hair will grow back and then is excited to give him her present. She pulls the watch-chain out of her pocket and says, “Now you’ll have to check the time every ten minutes, don’t you think?” And her husband sits down on the couch, laughs, and tells her that he sold his watch so that he could buy her the combs.
The story loses something when I tell it again. But you see its point. The husband and wife love each other so much that they each sell their most precious possession to buy a gift for each other. Of course the gifts are useless, because they are meant to go with the other person’s prized possession—the combs for the wife’s now shorn hair, the chain for the husband’s hocked watch. But the point is that they have something worth more than those possessions. They have their love—a love that is willing to give up everything to give the other person joy.
Many of us who are older probably have a hard time hearing this story without closing our hearts. The longer you live, the more you realize how rare this kind of love is and how, even when you have it, it passes away. People change. Love often dies. Promises are broken. And even when it doesn’t, we lose those who have loved us and whom we have loved. So many of us close up our hearts to love. We become very skeptical about love. While it is wise to be careful to whom you open your heart, it is also dangerous to shut it too tightly.
Why? Because love and life itself are connected. Self-giving love is not a fairy tale for Christians. For us, it’s everything. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)
But have you heard the criticism that people frequently bring against Christians? It goes something like this: “Jesus taught that we should love one another. But Christians love so little. They are some of the most judgmental, unloving people in the world.”
Do the critics of Christianity have a point when they say that Christians are unloving? I think they do.
We often forget that the ten commandments can be summarized in a single word—love. What does God demand of the world in the ten commandments? He demands love. He commands that we love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves. So it is not simply that God commands that you worship no false gods; He commands that you love Him above all things.
In a way it seems like a strange thing for God to do—to command that you love. Does anyone ever love because he is commanded to do so?
Yet that is what God says in the ten commandments. He commands us to love Him and our neighbor—not just a little bit, but Him with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And to these commandments He adds a threat—whoever breaks these commandments He will punish in this life, in death and in eternal damnation.
The commandment to love can be the most terrifying thing on earth. Anyone who seriously tries to love God and his neighbor will quickly experience how unloving he is. How much self-love and selfishness is in his heart. And if he believes he has to eradicate that selfishness to be saved, he will easily become what all the critics of Christianity say Christians are like. He will become fearful. He will do a lot of deeds that appear loving and spiritual not out of love for his neighbor but to prove to himself and others that he has love in his heart and is saved. He may convince himself and become self-righteous. Or he may inwardly struggle with despair. But either way peace—and real love—will elude him.
In the Epistle for this Sunday St. John is describing a different reality than the commandment to love. He is talking about the love of God for us.
- Henry’s story described the love of a married couple in which both people freely gave up their treasures to give joy to the other one. When they did this, were they forced into it? Did they do it because they were scared the other one would leave if they didn’t? Were they sad and grieving over what they lost for the other person?
No, the only crying in the story was the wife’s when she thought she didn’t have anything to give to her husband. Both sacrificed their treasures freely and confidently. They didn’t do it to make the other person stay or manipulate each other, but simply to give the other person joy. That’s the way real love works.
St. John says this kind of love is not a fairy tale. It is the very reality of our lives as Christians. “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (1 John 4:16)
God loves us. That is the foundation of our lives as Christians. We know His love; we believe in it; we trust it.
How do we come to know and believe in that love? We come to know and believe that God loves us personally through the Gospel that is preached to us. When He proclaims that He so loved us—each one, individually—that His Son became flesh and lived among us. That His Son fulfilled the commandments to love in our place, so that His obedience to the law is counted to us. When He proclaims that His Son took our sins and their guilt as His own and was condemned for them on the cross by God.
We come to know and trust God’s love for us by hearing Him proclaim His love to us. Then we come to His table to eat and drink His body and blood as the pledge of His love and our redemption.
Believing that God has this kind of love for us, we are free. We have a different relationship to God. We no longer have to live in fear that if we don’t do what He wants He won’t love us anymore. We rely on His love for us, and it makes us bold and confident.
The love of God drives out our fear. Fear, John says, has to do with punishment. Are we afraid of God’s judgment, of His punishment? Then we are not yet perfect and complete in His love. We are still thinking, in some way, that His love depends on our performance, that He loves us in response to our love of Him and our neighbor. But the Gospel doesn’t say that. It tells us that His love came first. As one of the confirmands’ confirmation verse puts it: While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8) He died for the ungodly—for us, while we were still weak and powerless to do anything good. He shows His love for us by dying for us while we were still in our sins. As our faith in this fact of God’s love for us grows, our fear of God’s wrath decreases. And the way that our faith grows is not that we try harder to believe it. Rather we listen to His Word; we hear it preached, we read it, we meditate on its promises.
The result of knowing and believing in God’s love for us is that the Law of God begins to be fulfilled in us. That is to say—we love. “We love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)
We don’t come to God with the capacity to love other people or Him. When the law throws us to our knees, we don’t love Him or other people. Even as Christians, the law exposes our criminal lack of love toward God and others.
Then, when we are on our knees, God proclaims the Gospel. Without any love in us that could please Him, He tells us, “I love you. In place of your lovelessness, I give you the passion of my Son, hanging on the cross out of perfect love for me and the whole world. I give you His righteousness as a robe to put on over your sins. I love you and I don’t count any of your sins as your own.”
When we receive this love and realize that this kind of self-giving love is no fairy tale, but that it is the kind of love that God has for us, it changes us. Now we have the door of our hearts open to God’s love. And if the door is open to God, it is open to other people as well.
“There is no fear in love.” The couple in O. Henry’s story was not afraid. They took risks with each other. They didn’t worry about losing their treasured possessions because they knew when those were gone they had something worth more that they relied on to sustain them. They were confident of each other’s love and it made them bold and fearless.
God’s love does this in us. When we receive it, we no longer live in fear that God will stop loving us. So we become free not only to love Him but to love the people around us. We can risk loving others and not having them love us in return.
We do this because love for other people is the way we show our love for God. You can’t buy God combs or a watch-chain. He doesn’t need those things. We have nothing to give to God that He didn’t give to us first.
But our brother does need what we have. He needs a kind word. He needs someone to listen to him. He needs our forgiveness and he needs to know that he is valued even though he does things wrong. Above all he needs to know that God loves him. He needs to hear that from us not just because it is our duty to tell him. He also needs to see that the love of God that we talk about is also mirrored in us—that we love the people whom God loves.
That’s why John tells us “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) If we close our hearts against our brother who needs our love, even when he doesn’t want it or doesn’t deserve it, we also are closing our hearts against God’s love for us.
When we consider how much love requires of us, we are liable to be overwhelmed. You see what a powerful thing love is in the story I told. Because of love the husband and wife gave up the best things they had. Love made them find their joy in the other’s happiness. And because of love they did not find this to be a burden. They sacrificed gladly. They considered it a joy.
When we look at what love requires of us from the outside, it seems like an impossible burden. It’s one thing to love your children like this, or your parents, or your spouse. But the person in the church who injures you? Or the person outside the church who is attacking everything we consider good and right? How can we love them like this, especially when we know that they will view this love as weakness and use it as an opportunity to harm us?
No, that won’t work. It is too much for us, because love is not native to our hearts. How can we love them?
John tells us. “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16) We don’t try to love these people on our own. We abide, we remain, in the love God has for us. God’s love for us comes to us in the Gospel and the sacraments. We receive His love by listening to the Gospel and not shutting our hearts against it.
We listen to Him tell us the story of Jesus who hung pierced and cursed on the cross, bearing the threats God makes against the loveless, making us whole. We remember and believe His promise in Baptism, where He claimed us and snatched us from the death of sin into life with Him. He trust His declaration of forgiveness in the absolution. We eat His body and drink His blood believing God’s pledge that by it our sins are forgiven.
Abiding in His Word and Sacraments by faith, we abide in God’s love. It is sincere. It doesn’t seek itself. It has no other goal than our joy and salvation. It transforms us so that we become like God, who is love.
O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone;
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
All coldness from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought be love. LSB 683 stanza 2
The peace of God which passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
4th Sunday after Trinity (Presentation of the Augsburg Confession)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 6:36-42
June 28, 2015
“God’s Mercy Reflected in His Children”
God is merciful. Thank God.
He is just and righteous. He is a holy God. He is a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Him. (Exodus 20:5-6)
But He is also merciful. The words of our Lord Jesus from today’s Gospel reading tell us, Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.
One dictionary defines mercy as “Compassion or forbearance shown to one (such as an adversary or offender) having no claim to kindness.”
That’s what God is and does. He shows compassion toward His enemies, even though they have no claim to kindness. He forbears; He holds back His wrath and judgment so that people may repent and turn to Him. He gives life and provides food and clothing, everything necessary for life, even to those who defy Him to His face. He has mercy on them.
God is merciful. But our society is not asking for mercy. It is taunting God by calling homosexual unions “marriage.” It flaunts this rejection of God as a great advance in morality. The White House makes itself the rainbow house, dying itself in the colors of the homosexual flag. How could our country proclaim more clearly that it does not believe in the God who speaks in Scripture? It has made an idol which it claims is the God of our fathers.
Our society has built a golden idol. I’m not sure what its name is, but one of its faces is same-sex marriage. And just like the golden image Nebuchadnezzar built in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s day, you will be expected to bow down when you hear the harp, bagpipe, flute and every kind of music. Though voices talk a lot about tolerance, there is no tolerance for those who don’t want to bow down to this image. Do you remember the bakers who didn’t want to make a cake for a gay “wedding?” Out of business. Don’t expect mercy from the world. Our society shows no mercy to millions of its infants in the womb who are slaughtered legally every year. If it has no mercy on helpless babies in the name of “freedom”, why would it have mercy on Christians who stand up and say, “This is wrong”?
There’s a reason why we can’t expect mercy from the world. God is merciful, but his enemy, the devil, is merciless. He is like a roaring lion going about seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter). And Jesus told the people in his day who did not believe in Him that they were children of the devil. “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God…Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (John 8:42-44) And what Jesus taught was repeated by the apostles. Human beings are by nature children of the devil and under the power of the evil one.
Since human beings are under the power of the devil, who is merciless, by nature they don’t understand mercy. They don’t want to receive it and they won’t give it. They are completely depraved and dead to God. And this includes us by nature as well.
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. Romans 1:28-32
Yet even though this is the natural state of human beings, God has mercy. He does not reckon up our sins, but instead freely deals with the world in His grace. He continues to provide us with life and everything necessary to support it. He sustains body and soul and provides food and clothing even to those who are estranged from Him and don’t want to know Him.
But this is only the beginning of His mercy. Above all this He shows us His greatest mercy by inviting us, who have sinned against Him, to nevertheless call Him “Father” and be adopted as His children. Instead of condemning us to hell in righteous anger at our sins, He provided for our deliverance from sin. He gave His only-begotten Son to join us in flesh and blood and be our ransom and Redeemer from sin. He set apart His only-begotten Son to have our sins placed on His head and to die under God’s judgment in our place. God gave His only Son to take our place under the curse and punishment that was due us. By His agony on the cross Jesus took away our sin and made it so that all who believe in Him are adopted as children of God. That was mercy. That was God’s indescribably mercy. It reconciled us to God, made us sinless and without reproach in His sight, made us God’s blessed children and heirs. Such is the mercy of God.
In today’s Gospel our Lord Jesus tells us what kind of life must follow in those who have received God’s mercy. We must also be merciful like our Father, “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” (2 Corinthians 1) We must be merciful because it is only fitting that those who owe everything to God’s mercy should be merciful. We must also be merciful because that mercy shows that we have been reborn as children of our merciful Father in heaven, that we are no longer children of the unmerciful devil. We must be merciful because our Father wants the world to see His mercy pictured in the lives of His children.
Christians are no longer children of the devil. Christians have been born again as children of God by the Word of God. That word came to us in Baptism and regenerated us, and it comes to us in the preaching of God’s Word, converting those who have fallen and sustaining those who believe. It is the word of God’s mercy in Christ. Through it we receive God’s mercy, that He receives us for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross and does not count our sins to us.
And Jesus commands that those who have received mercy from God to show mercy. This is fitting for us as children of the merciful Father in heaven. The world does not know mercy. We proclaim God’s mercy. And here Jesus commands us not merely to proclaim it, but also to preach it with our lives. Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you…In a world that is without mercy, Christians are to refrain from judging and condemning our neighbors, to forgive them, and to freely give to them.
When enemies judge you and try to destroy your life, you are not supposed to repay them in kind. Even though they judge and condemn you, you refrain from judging and condemning them. You pray for them and seek their well-being in this life and the life to come.
It’s important to clarify that when Jesus says, “Judge not” He is not saying that we should not recognize sin as sin or be afraid to call sin sin. We have to recognize sin as sin, otherwise we approve it and do harm to our neighbor, affirming him in it when we should be seeking his salvation.
But although we are required to judge false doctrine and reprove sin, we are supposed to do so not out of malice and retribution but in love for our neighbor. You are not supposed to delight in the sin and shame of your neighbor but to love him and seek his good. So if your brother in the church sins, Jesus tells you to take him aside and rebuke him, but in such a way that you save his reputation. Unless his sin is publicly known, you take him aside and reprove him in secret. “Judge not” does not mean that God forbids you to notice your neighbor’s sin. It means that God forbids you to wish your neighbor anything but his everlasting blessing, even when he sins. So you are allowed to notice your neighbor’s sins and even to call him on them, but only in the interests of seeing your neighbor blessed and saved for eternity.
This is the mercy we are to show to our enemies. When they judge and condemn us, we don’t condemn and hate them in return, but pray and work for their salvation.
When we consider that this is the standard to which God holds His children, we are liable to be struck with fear. How often we are possessed by judgmental thoughts and impulses to condemn! Even more, we carry those thoughts and impulses out in bitter words, in gossip, in curses. How often when we do carry out our callings to judge and reprove we are not motivated by love toward our brothers but by a vengeful spirit. We can see that our hearts are filled with unmercifulness that is not like the character of our Father in heaven. Because He does not count up people’s sins. He freely gives daily bread, life, and every good thing even to those who hate Him.
And He would not stop at that. He wants to give everything that is His to His enemies, even His only-begotten Son. It is God’s will that no sinner should perish or be judged or condemned. Jesus said, “Whoever hears my Word and believes in him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” (John 5:24)
If that is God’s will, that is the extent of His mercy, how can we be children of the merciful Father when there is still so much of a judging, condemning spirit in us?
The answer is that the remnants of our sinful nature that still live in us, as powerful as they may be, are not counted to the repentant Christian. Only Christ’s righteousness and the good works He does in us are counted to us. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) Christians struggle with their desire for vengeance, with their mercilessness. They struggle against their Old Adam daily because it was killed with Christ in Baptism. We struggle against our old wicked nature because it was crucified with Christ, and we belong to another—to Him who was raised from the dead. And the sin that remains in us while we daily repent and believe in Christ is not counted to us. It is forgiven, covered.
That does not mean that you should take it easy in your fight with your merciless sinful nature. It must be resisted and be put to death moment by moment, day by day. Those who don’t fight against the judgmental old Adam in them are not children of God, who is merciful. But when these words of Christ terrify you, don’t despair. You are not judged because you believe in Jesus Christ. You are not condemned because you are in Him. His Spirit lives in you and fights against your sinful nature that wants to judge and condemn, be unforgiving, etc. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are Sons of God. You are not under law, but under grace. The Holy Spirit bears witness that your sins are forgiven through Christ and He leads you in the footsteps of your merciful Father in heaven.
So these words of Jesus provide us with consolation and assurance that our faith in Him is right and living. “Forgive and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you…for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you again.” That doesn’t mean that you must forgive and give perfectly, otherwise you will have no reward. It means this: You believe that God is your Father through Christ and freely forgives you. So when you see yourself striving to forgive and give and not judge, etc., you can say, “See, this is proof that I have true faith in Christ, because the Spirit within me is warring against my old unmerciful nature. If I was a child of the devil there would be no struggle. I would judge, condemn, hate, and revenge myself without compunction.”
God is merciful. Thank God. Because of His mercy our sins are forgiven. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
By His body and blood today, by which He shows and assures us of His mercy, may He give us merciful hearts that reflect His mercy to our lost world.
And may His Word, which endures forever, go forth in power to convict the world of sin and to comfort sinners with His mercy in Christ.
Soli Deo Gloria
3rd Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 15:1-10
June 21, 2015
“Love For the Lost Sheep”
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him. Luke 15:1
This is a marvelous sentence. The tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to hear Jesus. It wasn’t just your everyday, run-of-the-mill sinners who were coming to listen to Jesus. It was the blatant sinners, people who were marked and avoided as being godless, excommunicated sinners. They were coming to listen to Jesus preach, and Jesus was receiving them, not driving them off.
For some of us today this may be a difficult thing to relate with. These were people living in public, open, unrepentant sin. Maybe you are not. Of course, we all know plenty of other people who are openly unrepentant. For instance, those who despise God’s Word by seldom or never coming to hear it preached. Those who openly live in sexual sin—premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, pornography. Those who slander and backbite and continue to do so even though they are rebuked. The list goes on. Paul gives us a longer list in Galatians chapter 5. “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21). When a person falls into such sins and does not repent, it means that they have fallen from the grace of God. They are on their way to hell.
Now most of us here today, or at least many of us, are not living in such sins. So it may be hard for us to relate to the joy this passage holds for sinners and tax collectors, for those who have fallen into grievous sin. For those who have fallen this passage holds out news of hope and unspeakable joy. It tells us that God is not idly or happily watching sinners perish. He is eagerly seeking the fallen, desiring their salvation. And when He finds them and brings them home, He rejoices over them along with all the angels in heaven.
That’s truly good news if you are a tax collector or a sinner, if you are sorry and afraid of your sins and long for salvation. God is seeking you out to give you forgiveness and restore you. But what if your sins are not so great and you are not so heavily burdened by them? What if you have not fallen into public, unrepentant sin?
First of all, you should give thanks to God for preserving you from great shame and vice, because without His grace you too would surely have fallen. But secondly this Scripture also shows how severely even those who have lived an upright life before the world have sinned. It draws a picture of what kind of love God has for the ungodly, and what kind of love He requires in the Law that we have.
You have heard the summary of the ten commandments before. The summary of the first table is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength.” And the second table is summarized with “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s simple. It’s the golden rule we teach to children. If your neighbor is hungry or thirsty, you feed him and give him something to drink, because that’s what you would have him do to you. If your neighbor is being slandered, you defend his reputation. If he has property, you help him to keep it and improve it, you don’t try to get it away from him. That’s love in external, bodily things, and that’s what God requires of us in the ten commandments.
But it is a much greater thing to love your neighbor in spiritual things. That means when you see your neighbor on the road to hell, you don’t shrug it off and say, “That’s his problem.” You deal with your neighbor as if his sin was your sin. What would you want your neighbor to do for you if you were caught in a sin and bound for hell? Would you want him never to say anything about it and mind his own business? Or would you want him to take you aside and preach the law of God to you so that you turn from your evil way and seek God’s grace? For myself, I would want my neighbor not to talk about me, nor cast me off as a lost cause, but to take me aside and warn me frankly to repent of my sin. I would want him to love me enough to seek my eternal welfare.
And that’s how much God commands and requires that we love our neighbor. He requires that we love him enough to seek his eternal well-being as if it were our own. That doesn’t just mean telling him that Jesus loves him and hoping he gets it. It means warning him with the law when he is unrepentant. But God doesn’t just require talk from us to our neighbor. Our hearts are to be full of love toward our neighbors, so that we can’t rest while they are perishing. That’s the way that God loves the lost, and it was this love that made the sinners and tax collectors come to Jesus. They heard stern rebukes and warnings from Jesus. Jesus preached, “Repent.” But they didn’t run away from Jesus as a harsh judge. It was clear that everything Jesus did and said proceeded from deep, passionate love for lost sinners. He was searching for them, longing for them, seeking them out the way a widow looks for her lost coin or a shepherd searches for his lost sheep.
In the past few weeks you’ve heard me try to speak clearly and call sin sin with regard to some of the things our society is trying to whitewash and legitimize. But in the scheme of things it’s relatively easy to stand behind this pulpit and say trying to change your sex is sinful, or having relations with someone of the same sex is sinful. But all of that is a dead work if there isn’t also love for sinners behind it. The Pharisees and scribes were able to call sin sin too. But they fell short of the righteousness of God because they didn’t also have heartfelt love for lost sinners that seeks them out and makes their sin its own. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels but have not love, I am a clanging gong or a crashing cymbal.”
And that’s just how we are in our sinful flesh—a lot of noise with no substance. A tongue ready to declare the law with a heart devoid of love for those who are condemned by the law. Our love for sinners is lacking. More often than not we don’t rebuke our sinning neighbors. We claim that we refrain out of love, when really it’s that we’re more afraid of our loved ones, friends, or acquaintances getting angry with us. We so quickly grow tired of calling people to repentance, especially when we feel their hostility. And when we do rebuke, we often do so not out of heartfelt love for the lost but out of our own anger or disgust. And people can sense this. They sense that we lack the love that seeks the good of our sinning neighbor as if it were our own good. And the tax collectors and sinners do not draw near to us, because they rightly sense that we are not going to rejoice over their being found.
By this standard, God’s standard, we all stand in great need of repentance. By human standards such a lack of love is no big deal. But in the sight of God it is an inexcusable hard-heartedness.
The tax collectors and sinners were burdened by the weight of their sins and the judgment of God. That’s why they found joy when they drew near to Jesus and heard that their sins were forgiven. If we cannot feel the burden of our sin of lovelessness, we should at least believe God that such a lack of concern for the eternal welfare of our neighbor is a great sin in His sight. We may not feel the full weight of our sins, but we should believe God and draw near with the tax collectors and sinners to listen to Jesus.
Then Jesus’ parable comes as good news to us, too. It comes as joyful news whether we are public sinners or those whose lack of love condemns us before God. Jesus tells us that God is in no way passive as He sees sinners on the way to destruction. God is actively seeking us while we are lost, before we start looking for Him. He is looking for us while we are lost because we are of great value to Him, the way a lost sheep is valuable to its shepherd, the way a lost coin is valuable to a poor widow. Whenever we become aware of the heaviness of our sins, we begin to tremble before God. The law and our conscience tell us that He must be furiously angry with us. Indeed, according to the law He cannot be anything less than angry with us as sinners. But Jesus tells us here that God is not hunting us like an avenger when we are lost in our sins. He is looking for us, eager to bring us back home on His shoulders, and to call His friends, the angels and the saints, together, that they might rejoice with Him over us. He hunts for us the way a widow hunts for a lost coin and the way a shepherd hunts for a lost sheep.
He was hunting for you long before you were hunting for Him. Before the foundation of the world, Scripture tells us, He planned for your redemption. He foresaw our fall into sin and He planned to give His Son to redeem us. Jesus came and sought out lost sinners by taking up human nature, so that there is nothing about us that is foreign to God. He has taken up everything that we are. And though He committed no sin, He made Himself one with us in our guilt before God. He picked us up like a lost sheep and put us on His shoulders. We were lost in our sins and could not find our way back to God, innocence, and life. He found us. He met us and found us at the cross of Calvary, where He bore all the wrath of the righteous God at our sins.
He eagerly sought out the lost sinner, you, all the way to the death of the cross. Now He seeks us out in the preaching of His Word. With the preaching of His law He finds us lost in our sins. He sweeps the house and uncovers us in the dust when He preaches the ten commandments to us. Then He proclaims the good news of the forgiveness of our sins through His cross. He puts us on His shoulders and carries us. He exalts us and lifts us up to sit on His shoulders. His righteousness is our righteousness. His holiness is our holiness. Now wolf can get to us when we lie on the shoulders of our shepherd Jesus. To destroy His lamb the devil, death, hell, and sin must first destroy Jesus. And that is impossible because He is risen from the dead, the conqueror of sin, death, and the devil. He puts us on His shoulders when He baptizes us, preaches the Gospel to us, absolves us, and feeds us His body and blood.
What is mine is yours, He tells us in the Gospel. In His love, which is a consuming fire, He has made everything that is His serve us. His life is our life, His righteousness our righteousness.
This is how we have to learn to console our consciences when our sins afflict us and death confronts us. At such times God’s law thunders in our ears that we have transgressed and earned His wrath. The threats of the law terrify us and we feel we are going to perish in God’s anger. That’s all our reason and our flesh know—God’s law and the righteousness it proclaims, that the one who does it is righteous. That’s the reason the scribes and Pharisees sneer and grumble at Jesus. “The law says sinners are cursed and cast out from God’s presence. How can Jesus receive them?” They don’t know the righteousness of God that the Gospel proclaims, and our flesh doesn’t understand it either. “hOw can God, who hates sin, love and eagerly desire sinners?” This is the mystery of the Gospel and it is what Jesus came to teach. Jesus didn’t come to preach a new law or set of laws. Moses had given the law already. Jesus came to preach the good news that God is seeking the lost sinners and that when they are found he rejoices over them.
How are lost sinners found? When they are brought to repentance. That is, when they hate their sins but believe that God has forgiven them through Jesus. This is the picture we need to put before our eyes when our sins accuse us and we are afraid of God’s wrath. We need then to hold on to this Gospel that tells us that God is eagerly seeking the lost sinners and rejoices over their salvation as if He had found a great treasure.
When we aren’t troubled about our sins and we are living our life on earth, it is a good thing for us to have the law before our eyes. Then we can have Jesus before us as an example. He didn’t seek His own welfare and wealth but ours. He saw us helpless in our sin and gave Himself to bear it and to preach to us that we might not remain lost but might be brought to God. The love that made Him do this should be our example when we are dealing with our neighbor. We should be willing to suffer everything and give up everything if only our neighbor might be saved. Jesus’ example should move us to pray to God to give us more fervent love for our neighbor, so that we are willing to rebuke him and bear with him and love him until his soul is saved. Jesus’ example should stand before us, together with the ten commandments, as a sermon that puts to death our self-love and our self-seeking so that we seek our neighbor’s welfare in body and soul. The example and love of Jesus is what propels us to take risks in seeking our neighbor’s salvation.
But whenever we are frightened of our sins and God’s wrath, whenever our failure to love accuses us, then we must have Jesus before us not as our example but as our redeemer. For He has sought us out and put us on His shoulders. He bore the cross and our sins, and He placed us into His body crucified and risen in our Baptism. We cling to Him and hang around His neck. He is ours and we are His. Our sin is His sin. His righteousness and life is our righteousness and life.
This is what gives us confidence to witness, to proclaim Christ, to seek our neighbor’s salvation. If we were being judged by God’s law no one would ever dare to open their mouth in Christ’s name. After all, who knows? You might say something wrong. You might not rightly divide law from Gospel. You might sin and make the Gospel look bad. You might offend someone so that they never want to hear the word of God again.
But we are not being judged by God’s law. We are righteous by faith alone in Jesus. Our righteousness is complete and certain because it is the righteousness of Jesus. So when we seek our neighbor’s salvation, we do it not to justify ourselves or contribute something toward our salvation. That is already accomplishes. We do it out of love—out of love for Jesus who has redeemed us, and out of love for our neighbor whom we begin to love in Christ and whom our Lord Jesus has already loved when He was crucified.
May God fix before our eyes the love of Christ toward us and fill us with love toward our neighbor. As we partake of Christ’s passionate love toward us in His body and blood, may He also fill us with ardent love toward lost sinners, whether they are in our church, our families, or our neighborhoods.
Soli Deo Gloria
2nd Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 14:15-24
June 14, 2015
The Party No One Wanted To Come To.
Have you ever given a party or a dinner and no one wanted to come? Everyone made excuses? “Oh, I have to go to the doctor that day”? The excuses may even be real, but that doesn’t take away the humiliation of having no one want to come to your party. You may never have had this experience, but you can imagine how it would feel. A kid who had no one come to his birthday party would probably cry. An adult would probably feel angry at his so-called friends.
In Jesus’ parable today it is God who is throwing a party that no one wants to come to. This comes as a shock to the religious men with whom Jesus is eating a dinner. They were sure that they were going to be invited to God’s banquet, and they thought that when the invitation came they would be eager to drop everything and come to it. But Jesus tells them that they have already been invited but have refused to come.
Jesus is not really telling a new story but an old one. Long ago God gave a promise to the ancestors of the Jews that there would be a baby born from their stock who would take away the sins of the world. But most of the Jews did not believe this promise. And when God brought the people out of Egypt to be His holy nation, they continually rebelled against God and refused His offer. They didn’t believe He was going to provide for them. The second they were lacking something they complained and wanted to go back to slavery. When Moses was gone on the mountain talking to God, they built an idol and turned to it instead of to the Lord. Then when they arrived at the border of the promised land, they rebelled and did not believe that God would bring them in. Finally God said, “Fine. You will wander in the desert forty years until you die, and then I will bring your children into the land.” This is what God eventually does when people despise His promise and invitation. He eventually will let people have their own way and give His good gifts to others.
Jesus is saying that this is what will happen to the Jews. They—at least the Pharisees—are claiming that they eagerly desire to come to God’s banquet of eternal life and blessedness. But Jesus is saying, “It is already here, and you are refusing it.” The Pharisees had not listened to the preaching of John the Baptist, who called out for the people of Israel to repent and be baptized because the kingdom of God was at hand. And even more the Pharisees had not listened to the preaching of Jesus, who called them to come to the banquet of God, to receive the forgiveness of sins. Jesus called them to come because the kingdom of God was present where He was. He was the King. In Him God and man are united in one person. In Him there is fellowship and communion between God and man. And He shares the fellowship and communion with all who believe in Him.
But most of the people to whom Jesus preached did not want to come to the banquet of God, which means that they did not want to come to Jesus and believe that in Him God was reconciled to sinners. They didn’t want to come because to come to Jesus meant losing earthly things, or at least putting them second. In Jesus’ parable the people who are invited to the banquet say, “I’m sorry, I can’t come because I have just bought a field.” “I have bought oxen to plow my field.” They have business and financial concerns that keep them from coming to the feast. Or, “I have just gotten married, so I can’t come.” Jesus isn’t saying it’s a sin to get married or run a business and make money, but He is saying that a person can’t put those things first and also seek God’s kingdom. Because to come to Christ, who is God’s feast where we are fed with eternal life, we must be willing to lose “life, goods, fame, child, and wife,” as we sing in “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” When God called Abraham to go into a foreign country so God could make him a great nation, Abraham could have said, “But all my family is here. It will be dangerous to go to a land where I don’t know anybody.” Abraham trusted that the God who promised to make him into a great nation would also protect him in the land into which God called him to go.
Most of the Jewish people did not believe in Christ when God invited them to come to Him and receive eternal life. What was the reason? Jesus says because they were concerned with their earthly life first—with family and business. He doesn’t say they were out living immoral lives, and that’s why they wouldn’t come to the feast. They were occupied with things that God gives. Family and work are gifts from God. However, God doesn’t want us to be so occupied with those things that they come before His greatest gift, which is the Gospel of His Son. That is the feast to which the Jews were invited and to which we are invited, and to which God invites the whole world in the preaching of Christ.
And it is a rich feast God spreads before us in the Gospel. He doesn’t offer us temporary treasures and pleasures in the Gospel. He offers and invites us to partake of rich food and drink that sustains our lives forever. He freely invites us in the Gospel to come and be forgiven all our sins through the suffering, agony, and death of His beloved Son. He says in the Gospel that everything Jesus is and has is for you. His righteousness is yours, by which He fulfilled the entire law. His innocent suffering and death is yours, by which He made full atonement for all your sins. His resurrection from the dead is yours, by which He justified us and rose with sin dead and buried to appear before God as our advocate forever. St. Paul says in Colossians, “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge…In Him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him.” Through faith in Jesus alone you are forgiven all your sins and you have communion with the true God, even though by nature you are dead in your trespasses and sins. Why would anyone pass up such a rich banquet?
But that is the point of this parable. Most people did pass up this banquet in Jesus’ day, and most people still do in ours. Why? Because they hear the message of the forgiveness of sins but reject it. They believe that they are going to find what they’re looking for in earthly things—goods, fame, child, and wife. They don’t seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.
So what does the master of the banquet do? He gets angry. Then he sends out his servant to invite and call other people to his banquet, people that a respectable house owner would never invite—the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. This is what God did when eventually, after the ascension of Jesus, He sent the apostles to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. But you can also see that even in Jesus’ ministry it was the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind who came to Him. Not just those who were literally sick and poor, but also the spiritually poor—tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners. These began to come to God’s banquet and believe the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
So today God is calling those who are far off to come to His feast. We are becoming used to hearing dreary news of people not coming to Church, no longer interested in the Gospel. But it is not that way everywhere. In Africa and Asia, places where people lived in paganism and idolatry for countless generations, there is a rich harvest going on for the Gospel. The Lutheran church is growing in those lands.
Just like in Jesus’ parable, we can rest assured that God is going to fill His banquet hall. He is gathering an eternal Church which will be filled with all the elect from every tribe, nation, language, and people. God is not going to let His feast go to waste just because some people refuse it. He is too generous for that. He is going to fill His feast. And what we see from the parable is that many who seem most likely to be at God’s feast won’t be there. He fills it up with people you wouldn’t expect to find at the feast, with the poor, sick, blind, and lame, not with the wise and great of the world, but with the sufferers and the spiritually poor.
But the Lord now invites you to come to His banquet. He has prepared everything. Everything is ready. He gave His Son to bear your sins, and everything that could keep you away He has removed. And He says, “Come to my feast. Everything is ready. Come and have your sins forgiven.” And since He has provided such rich food at such a cost, can He not be trusted to take care of everything else. Just like at a fancy party you would leave your keys with the valet and your coat at the checkroom, leave your concerns about your family and business with the Lord and make sure you come first to His feast. He will take good care of them. He has already prepared everything for you in the death of His Son.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 16:19-31
June 7, 2015
“Blessed are the Unhappy”
Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are those who mourn.
Jesus says these words in another of His sermons, the one called the Sermon on the Mount. If He were preaching it to Americans in the 21st century, He might phrase it a little differently.
Blessed are the unhappy.
He could hardly preach something with which we Americans would be less likely to agree. Because for us Americans the whole purpose of life on earth is to be happy as much as you possibly can. If you aren’t happy it’s almost better to be dead. That’s what our society thinks.
Jesus doesn’t agree with us. “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn.” What does our Lord mean by this? He means there is something worse than being unhappy in this life—to be in torment forever after you die. And there is something far greater than being happy and having good things in this life. That is to have eternal happiness and joy after you die.
That is what Jesus is teaching in His sermon about the rich man and Lazarus. It is a serious warning for those who live their lives running after happiness in this world. It is a serious and urgent warning for our generation, where we live as if there was nothing more important than being happy during this life. But this sermon of Jesus is also full of consolation and joy for those who are unhappy, for those who are physically sick or emotionally, unwell, for those with shattered hopes and troubled consciences. Jesus tells of the comfort that belongs to sufferers who believe in Him, so that our burdens may be lighter and we may encourage ourselves as we wait for the comfort from God He promises the unhappy. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
People in our time believe that there is nothing more important than being happy in this life. That’s the source of much of the world’s rejection of the witness of the Christian Church. It’s not just because Christians say, “This and that is wrong and you shouldn’t do it.” It’s because the Christian Church says, like Jesus says, that you can be unhappy and still be blessed.
If you watch the news at all you will no doubt be aware of the story of the Olympic medalist who had sex-reassignment surgery and got his picture on the front of the magazine Vanity Fair. I really wish that I did not have to speak about this in the sermon, but it is necessary to speak because there is a whole generation of children being raised to think that this is normal and good. Now what do we say, what does the Christian Church say to this? We say that if you are born a man, God created you that way. He called you to be a man. He made you a man. So you should not try to live as a woman or become a woman. In the beginning God created them male and female, so what God has created, let not man try to mutilate or deface. That’s what we have to say to the question of whether a woman or a man should try to change their sex. Even if they go through with the surgery, they have not really changed their sex. They have simply mutilated their bodies.
But our world responds, “He always felt like he was really supposed to be a woman. He was unhappy all his life being a man instead of a woman.” And this is where Jesus’ teaching offends the world. Because Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn.” What if it were really true that Bruce Jenner was suffering his whole life because he felt like he was a woman in a man’s body? Who says that we should never suffer, never be unhappy? Jesus says those who suffer are blessed because God will comfort them. But the world rejects this. It says we should never have to suffer because it’s God’s will.
Another common example. God says in the 6th commandment that sex is reserved for a man and a woman united in the bonds of marriage. But in our time it’s become common to have sex and live together before marriage. Why? In part because there is the fear that marriage is too big a commitment and people can’t be sure they won’t end up being miserable in marriage. Or because one person in the relationship wants to get married but the other doesn’t, and the one who wants to get married is afraid of losing the other person. People have sex outside of marriage because they want happiness and pleasure, and the two other options of marriage or splitting up carry the risk of unhappiness. This is another way the world rejects Jesus’ teaching, “Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the unhappy.”
One final example. Jesus teaches that divorce is a sin except in the cases of adultery or desertion. But our world wants the right to divorce simply because one spouse or another is unhappy. Because if you’re not happy, our society thinks you have lost everything that makes life worth living. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” It’s possible to live in a less than happy marriage, even an outright unhappy one, because it is God’s will—and Jesus promises that God will comfort those who suffer.
I could give many more examples. Christianity is constantly clashing with our time because our time thinks that the only thing that is important is to be happy in this life.
But Jesus teaches that there is something worse than being unhappy in this life. This is illustrated by the story of the rich man. In this world he seems to have unlimited happiness. He’s rich. He dresses in the finest clothes. He eats well and has parties every day.
Then finally the rich man dies and is buried. With the end of his life comes the end of feasting and parties and dressing like a king. With the end of life comes the end of his happiness, because when he dies he goes to Hades, or hell. There, burning in hell, he can’t even get a drop of water to cool his tongue. And he finds out that while his pleasures in life were only temporary, his torment is eternal . A great chasm has been fixed between heaven and hell that no one can ever cross forever.
Why did the rich man end up in this torment? It was not simply because he was rich. Many people in the Bible were rich, and yet they were saved and went to heaven, such as Abraham, David, and others. He went to hell because he sought his good things in this life. It’s not wrong to eat well and dress well and enjoy the gifts of God in this life, but it is a sin to set your heart on earthly pleasures and make them your highest good, to live as if the purpose of life is happiness in this world. The reason living for happiness in this world is such a great sin is that it is idolatry. When we live as if the most important thing is happiness in this world, we worship another god besides the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And this is just the way our world lives. It lives as if having pleasure for yourself in this life is the only thing that matters. It forgets about God, hearing His Word, giving Him thanks. In fact, most people in our world act like the Word of God is a bunch of fairy tales designed to scare stupid people. Just look around and you can see that our world believes that you are blessed not if you have God but if you have money, power, pleasure, and good things in this world. Sadly, tragically, so many of our church members have been seduced by the lie that if they have enough earthly things to content them, they don’t really need God’s Word. Yes, our world would be content if there were no God at all as long as they have enough to keep them happy in this life.
But what is true of the world is also true of us in our sinful nature. We too often live and operate as though the only thing that matters is the comforts that this life affords. We weep and mourn when we lose our health, wealth, and loved ones, as though we knew of no other comfort. We often don’t regard Moses and the Prophets—the Word of God—as our greatest treasure, which calls us to repentance and promises us a better happiness than this world can give. We place our hopes for happiness on things in this world—our children and family, our wealth, our success and reputation—and then we are crushed when these things are taken away. God’s promise to provide comfort and eternal happiness we often regard as a phantom. We want something we can see and touch now. Of course no matter how many consolations God gives us on earth we are never satisfied, because our souls can’t be satisfied with anything less than God alone.
We too have sought our good things in this world. So God calls us to repent so that we don’t end up like the rich man in the eternal fire, the eternal torment, the eternal unhappiness.
But Jesus teaches that there is something better than having the happiness this world can offer. That is the consolation that God gives in the life to come, which is solemnly promised by God to all who are baptized into Jesus Christ and believe in Him. This eternal happiness is illustrated in the person of poor Lazarus.
Lazarus, as far as the world judges, was the most miserable of men. As far as our reason can see it would have been better for Lazarus to die so his pain would cease. But God did not let Lazarus die quickly. For years it seems he was bedridden, unable to get up and work, confined to a mat that was laid at the gate of the rich man’s house. He was not dressed in linen and purple but with rags. He did not part every day but mourned. His body was covered with open sores which the dogs came and licked, and he was powerless to stop them. To our human reason and understanding it appears that God had abandoned poor Lazarus, cursed him, and blessed the rich man instead.
The church is no stranger to poor Lazarus because we have him in our midst. The poor. The sick. Those who are in agonizing pain for years and their pain never seems to get better. Those who are in and out of the hospital constantly with ill health. Those who mourned for lost loved ones not for months but for years, for decades. Those whose mental illness condemns them to a life of suffering, and no miracle relieves them. Those who are continually struggling with sin or who have a plagued conscience that continually doubts their salvation.
So what hope does Jesus hold out for the sufferers, for the poor Lazaruses? “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted by God.”
You see that Jesus does not promise that things will get better for poor Lazaruses in this life. Often when we suffer in this world, God does relieve us when we reach the point that we feel we can’t go on. But usually some other sorrow eventually follows. And there are some crosses that are never alleviated in this life. Lazarus never got up from his bed in this life. He was hungry till the day he died, and the dogs never stopped licking his sores.
And yet Lazarus was the one in this story who was blessed by God, not the rich man. Why was Lazarus blessed? Not simply because he suffered. Lazarus’ suffering was not enough to atone for his sins. But Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. Abraham is the spiritual father of all the blessed, all the saints, as it is written in Romans chapter 4: “Abraham…is the father of us all.” (v. 16) He is our father in God’s sight not because he is our physical ancestor, but our spiritual ancestor. Abraham was given a promise by God: “So shall your seed or offspring be”—as the stars in the heavens. And the Old Testament reading today tells us that “Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6) Abraham believed that one of his offspring would redeem the world from sin and bring many sons to glory. That offspring was Jesus. And Lazarus was a son of Abraham and was carried to Abraham’s bosom because he also trusted that Jesus, the seed of Abraham, would come and take away his sins. And we have this same faith. We believe that Jesus, the offspring of Abraham, has come, suffered for our sins, rose on the 3rd day, and reconciled us to God. God no longer regards us as sinners because of Jesus. He regards us, reckons us, righteous, just as Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Because Lazarus trusted that this promised seed of Abraham would take away all his sins, Lazarus was blessed even in his suffering. Even though he was sick and the dogs licked his sores and he stayed hungry, he was blessed because he had peace with God. And because he had peace with God, he knew that God would surely comfort him and give him eternal life.
Peace with God lightens every other suffering. No suffering is worse than fearing that God is displeased with you and you will spend eternity in hell. If you are already suffering and you are uncertain whether your sins are forgiven and you don’t know whether or not you will end up in hell, it makes the suffering that much heavier.
But God does not will that we live in that kind of uncertainty. He has promised unconditionally that our sins are forgiven through the suffering and death of Jesus in our place. He continually assures us of this pledge He made to us. He gives us our Baptism, which is His lifelong promise to blot out our sins for Jesus’ sake. He continually makes His salvation known in the Gospel. He absolves us individually and He seals His pledge of forgiveness by giving us Jesus’ body to eat and His blood to drink.
Through the word and Sacraments we have peace with God. They assure us that Christ died for us and removed our sins. And that lightens our burdens, because in the midst of suffering we have the promise that we will be comforted by God, forever. It is true that we are suffering now, but God loves us and has not forgotten us. Do you notice how in Jesus’ sermon the rich man does not have a name, but Lazarus is called by his name? That’s because God knows the people who believe in Christ by name. He knows you by name. He is far from the ungodly and does not know them. They are estranged from Him. They do not know Him and He does not know them either. But being baptized into Christ, you can be certain that God knows you by name and looks upon you as His dead child in your suffering. The world and our reason assume that God is smiling on us when we are dressed in purple and fine linen and feasting sumptuously every day. But in actual fact God did not even speak the name of the rich man. When he died and had a splendid funeral God had no regard for him but cast him into the eternal fire. But Lazarus God knew by name while he lay on the mat and the dogs were licking his sores. And when Lazarus died no doubt he had no splendid funeral on earth. But unseen the angels of God carried his soul to Abraham’s bosom where he was consoled and comforted.
So you who are Christians who are suffering: God knows your name and is well-pleased with you. And you can comfort yourself with this and boast in it in the midst of your cross, whatever it may be. “I am pleasing to God. I am His child and heir. If God is for me, who can be against me? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8)
Not only this, but we Christians can and should comfort ourselves in suffering with the hope of eternal life. We can and should say to ourselves, “I may be suffering like poor Lazarus now, but soon the angels will carry me to Abraham’s bosom and I will be consoled by all the saints who have won the victory. Even more than that—Jesus Himself will comfort me, and God the Father will wipe away every tear from my eyes.” We can and should comfort ourselves this way, because compared to the eternity of joy we will have in heaven, the sufferings of this present time are really small and light in comparison. It’s true that when we are suffering our burdens don’t seem small or light at all. But compared to an eternity of happiness, of joy, of reigning with Christ, they will seem small.
But the problem for us is that we are very weak in our faith that we have eternal life. WE doubt when we suffer and when we struggle with sin that we are really forgiven and that the promise of eternal life applies to us. That is why we have to learn to hold fast to the word of the apostles and prophets and not to our feelings or the way things appear. The Scriptures of the Apostles and Prophets teach that Jesus, the seed of Abraham, has atoned for our sins. They are really forgiven, not because of anything we do or have not done but solely on the basis of what He did. He was the one who was covered with wounds and bruises and surrounded by dogs—that is, wicked men—who condemned Him to death. He was the One who bore all the accusations against us before God. He was truly, and not in appearance only, cast off by God for our sins. He is the reason why we are not cast off by God, even when we suffer, but indeed are embraced by God, counted righteous, received as holy children of God. And the one who believes this is reckoned righteous, just as Abraham was.
So blessed are the unhappy. Blessed are those who mourn and yet believe in Christ, for they will be comforted by God. Blessed are you for no other reason that that you believe Christ died for you, because God regards that faith as righteousness. And if you are righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, God will surely comfort you. It will not be the temporary comforts of this world, but the eternal, almighty comfort of the living God. He will comfort you as He comforted His Son after His suffering. He will take you to Himself in paradise. Then He will raise you from the dead on the last day and declare you righteous before all the universe. Since this will surely happen for you who are baptized into Christ, comfort yourself now when you have tribulation. Refresh yourself with the promise of eternal life when you suffer. It is yours is Christ Jesus. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called. Say, “It is mine through the blood of Jesus.” Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 5:1-11
July 20, 2014
“Christ’s Word Catches us Out of the Deep”
Listen to Elijah’s distress as he talks with God. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of armies.” But the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets. Now I am the only one left and they’re trying to kill me, too.
What good had all of Elijah’s jealousy for the Lord done? It hadn’t done anything to turn the tide of God’s people abandoning God. All Elijah could see was that the true public worship of God had been wiped out and the preachers of God’s Word had been killed.
Even though Elijah’s zeal and strength didn’t seem to win any battles, the mighty word of God Elijah preached was working—unseen by him. It had preserved a little remnant within Israel that had refrained from making sacrifices to false gods, giving worship to demons. And it was about to raise up kings and prophets who would destroy the powerful people who had taught the Israelites to worship Baal.
We are sunk in the depths of futility and death, but Christ’s word brings us up from the deep.