St. Peter Lutheran Church
Deuteronomy 8:1-10 (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
November 24, 2016
“Thanksgiving for the Lord’s Discipline”
Setting apart a day to give thanks to God has a long history in America. The Pilgrims didn’t invent it. The French and Spanish explorers are said to have had their own “thanksgivings” to give thanks to God for allowing them to arrive safely in the new world. A group of English settlers in Virginia wrote a constitution for their colony in 1619 that said “that the day of our ships arrival … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Both Catholics and Protestants set aside days of Thanksgiving because they recognized, or wanted people to recognize, that they didn’t get to America safely or accomplish anything here on their own. God enabled them and allowed them. Without His favor they would have died on the voyage, and without His favor they would not be able to succeed in anything once they arrived. So together, as a society, they gave thanks to God, recognizing His hand in the events of their lives, and thanking Him for the good He allowed them to receive in spite of their many sins against Him.
We aren’t like this anymore in America. We don’t recognize God’s hand in the things that happen to us as a nation. And imagine the President or Congress announcing a national day of thanksgiving, or a national day of supplication and prayer, in response to some great blessing received or tragedy experienced by the nation, announcing that schools and businesses and the stock exchange would be closed so that the nation might turn to God for a day!
Things are not much better in the Church among Christians. If we announced a special service of thanksgiving in response to a special blessing of God on a day that people are not accustomed to coming to church, I know very well what would happen. Even, say, if someone wrote a check to St. Peter for several hundred thousand dollars, covering the whole cost of our roof repairs. This is an indication that for many people worship is not the spontaneous, living response of their hearts to God’s love and gifts; for many people it is a formality, doing what they think is required and no more. Worship is on Sunday, period.
But God does not stop being our God at noon on Sundays. He doesn’t stop giving us gifts then or providing for our needs of body and soul. Every day He lets His sun shine on the just and the wicked alike. I believe that God has made me and all creatures, that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them [or preserves them] Luther’s Catechism teaches us to say. And it goes on to remind us of all the gifts He gives us, day in and day out, whether we please Him or not: He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
Yes, as we sing in the communion liturgy each week, “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s only right that we should recognize that God has given us our life and existence, and that He constantly provides for our lives to be sustained, whether we do good or evil. And recognizing this, it’s right that we should give thanks from our hearts to Him at all times. And when He shows us special kindness as a church or as a nation, it is right that we should publicly thank Him in the Church with a special service of thanksgiving.
This has immediate practical importance for your lives as individuals, this issue of recognizing God’s hand in your life and thanking Him. Because if we do not recognize God as the giver of the good things in our lives and give Him thanks—the things that we need and the people and things we love—we will not be able to recognize Him as the giver of the things that seem evil to us. When we get sick and when we suffer in various ways, we will feel ourselves abandoned or cursed by God, because we have not learned to recognize Him and His hand in all that we experience in life.
Consider the reading from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy chapter 8. You would think that the people of Israel would have no difficulty understanding that God was intimately involved with what happened to them. He had, after all, sent ten plagues on the Egyptians to make Pharaoh let them go; led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night in the wilderness; parted the Red Sea to bring Israel through in safety and then drowned Pharaoh and his mighty army. He had fed them with bread from heaven in the desert. He had come down on Mt. Sinai in fire and spoke the Ten Commandments to them. He had entered into a covenant with them there that they would be His people and He would be there God.
And yet they did not recognize that God was among them and leading them. At the beginning of their exodus, right after coming through the Red Sea, they went a few days without water and began to say, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7) Then Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water came out for the whole congregation of 3 million. But after 40 years in the wilderness they had still not learned to recognize God’s presence among them and how He was providing for them and teaching Him the whole way. So Moses explains to them, not long before his death: You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord…Know then, that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Deut. 8:2-3, 5
The Israelites did not understand the reason why they experienced the things they did, why after God gloriously led them out of Egypt, He allowed them to wander in circles in the desert for 40 years. Maybe many of them began to think that God’s promise that He loved them and had chosen them to be His own people out of all the nations on the earth was just religious talk that doesn’t actually have any significance in real life, because they seemed like they were going nowhere, and the promised land seemed a long way away.
But Moses explained that no, God did have a reason for their wandering in circles. As a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. A man disciplines his son because he loves his son. Kids with strict parents look at other kids whose parents let them do whatever they want and think those kids have it better. But as adults we understand that parents who let their kids do whatever they want on the internet without paying attention, who let their kids run around as teenagers without paying attention to what they’re doing are parents who don’t love their kids very much. Parents who love their kids allow their kids freedom when their kids have proven that they can handle the freedom without ruining themselves. They “test” their kids “to know what is in [their] hearts.”
This is why God led the Israelites in circles in the desert forty years, why He humbled them so that they had to rely on God to drop bread down from heaven if they were going to eat. He didn’t allow them much freedom at all, did He? It was to discipline them so that they worshipped Him—that is, so that they believed in Him, so that they trusted Him, so that they learned faith in Him. Then when they entered the promised land and suddenly had houses that other people built, and rich farmland that other people cultivated, they would not turn away from Him and think they had gotten all this for themselves, or worship the idols of the people who lived there before them. They would remember the Lord who brought them out of slavery and give Him thanks for the good land that He had given them.
Another amazing thing is hidden in that sentence: Know then in your heart, that, as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. It’s easy to focus on the word “discipline” and think of a dad in the old days taking his son behind the woodshed with a switch or something. But that is not the key word: the key word is “son.” I don’t think anywhere before the exodus of the people of Israel did God call any human being his “son,” not even Abraham or Noah or Enoch, who walked with God. But here Moses tells the people of Israel that God has been treating them like His Son. A man disciplines his son not only because he loves him but because the son is going to inherit everything that belongs to his father, and he needs to learn to be wise so that he will be capable of managing his inheritance instead of destroying it and himself. God is dealing with Israel, rebellious Israel, idol-worshipping Israel, as His own son, whom he is preparing to inherit everything that is His.
This would have little meaning for us as Gentiles, as non-Israelites. Our ancestors worshipped idols, and God did not discipline them and deal with them as His sons. But long ago someone came to them and taught them about Jesus and proclaimed Him as the Son of God. And our believing ancestors taught their children about Him until it came down to us.
We learned that Jesus, the Son of God from eternity, through whom God the Father created and preserves the world, became the son of Adam, one of us. He lived among us so that we might see in Him the exact image of God the Father. And being our brother, He died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and ascended with our human nature to the throne of God. Through His suffering the wrath of God for our sins, He caused human beings to be adopted by God as sons; and He received the inheritance of eternal glory in human flesh as a pledge of what is to come for all who believe in Him.
Because of Him, you have a certain pledge from God about what His heart is toward you and what He is doing in the events of your life.
They are not random, meaningless events, like the Israelites were tempted to think. God is dealing with you as sons. He is dealing with you like a father who loves his son and who wants to prepare him to inherit all that is his.
A father loves his son, so he provides for him; he gives him food, shelter, clothes, and defends him from danger. At the same time, because he loves his son, he also tests him and disciplines him. He humbles him so that he learns to be faithful and obedient when he is not entrusted with much freedom. He schools him so that when he grows to be a man and inherits his father’s house, he will not squander it and ruin himself.
Many of you are dealing with personal suffering that is hard to see as God’s love. You are sick or have constant pain. It may be that the doctor has told you you have a limited amount of time left on earth. Others are suffering from seeing their children or relatives in conflict or unforgiveness, or having abandoned God.
We grieve over what our nation has become, many of us, since many of our people have forgotten right and wrong, forgotten what is decent and good. Most have also forgotten God and seem to be past repentance.
And then for many of us there is the grief at the state of the church—especially our own congregation, but also the Christian church more generally in our country….
How can we give thanks?
God has not stopped being kind, gracious, and merciful. See how freely Jesus heals the lepers of their diseases, even though 9 out of 10 are unthankful. He continues to provide us with wealth, peace, safety.
But when we suffer He is dealing with us as sons. See how His only begotten Son was chastened with the lash for your sins, how He hung on the cross, suspended by nails in His hands and feet, crowned with a curse, abandoned by God. Did the Father love Jesus? He did. Yet Jesus, though He was a son, was made perfect through suffering.
God is dealing with you as sons, preparing you to inherit glory with Jesus.
Do not lose heart. Go against your heart and praise Him “at all times and in all places.” Recognize His love not only in your daily bread, in the turkey on the table and the family gathered around it, but also in your afflictions.
18th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 25, 2016
“A Church Loses Its First Love”
There is a reason why so many songs and poems speak about the experience of falling in love. Love is powerful, intoxicating. It almost makes someone new. It changes the expression of a person’s face, gives light to their eyes. It gives people courage and zeal to do things they would never otherwise have tried.
But the ecstasy of falling in love has to be followed up by action. People who fall in love but don’t make a pledge to one another to forsake all other loves, or who don’t follow through on that pledge by continuing to give themselves to the other, find that their love grows cold. Instead of first love growing into a deeper and more mature love, it gradually dies.
In the first letter to the churches in Asia Minor, our Lord Jesus Christ writes to the church in Ephesus that it has lost its first love for Him.
The church in Ephesus was the oldest of the seven churches to which Jesus told John to write. It had been founded by the apostle Paul about 40 years before the writing of the book of Revelation. He wrote the Ephesian church a letter while he was in prison in Rome that we still read today because it is holy Scripture. Later, tradition tells us that the apostle John lived in Ephesus and taught there into his old age.
Being the oldest church in the region, and having had two apostles dwell there and teach them, the church in Ephesus might have been proud of their history, boasted of what God had done for them. That boasting and pride would have been no sin if it was pride in the goodness and love of their Lord, who made them first among the seven churches solely out of His grace.
But something was wrong in Ephesus. Jesus introduces Himself as the One who walks in the midst of the golden lampstands, the churches. “I know your works,” He says. And the works He mentions He is pleased with: the Ephesians have toiled and worked hard as a church to spread the word of God. They have been patient and endured suffering and hostility in the world for their faith and their toil to make Christ known. And they could not tolerate false teachers. They tested those who claimed to be “apostles”—people sent by Christ—and when the supposedly God-sent men didn’t preach what accords with Christ’s doctrine, the Ephesians threw them out as false apostles and refused to hear them.
In addition, Jesus commends them because they hated the works of the Nicolaitans, a group that claimed the Gospel made them free to practice sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols. That was like receiving communion from an idol—participating in its worship, and proclaiming fellowship with the idols worshippers.
So the Ephesian church was exemplary for its orthodoxy and its willingness to work and suffer for Christ.
But for all this apparent faithfulness, the Lord finds something lacking, something so important that it invalidates all the good things about the church in Ephesus. “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first—“ or, “You have let go of your first love.”
“You don’t love me like you once did.” When two people are in love, those are among the most painful words one could speak to the other. They signify that love between two people is no longer strong and certain; love is passing away, the way everything beautiful in this world fades, grows old, and dies.
Hearing Jesus say, “You have lost your first love for me” would pierce the heart of anyone who loves Him like a dagger. After He rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to Peter by the Sea of Galilee, where He first called Peter to follow Him. Three times He asked Peter, “Do you love me?” And Peter was full of grief that Jesus had to ask if he still loved Him.
If Jesus asked you, St. Peter, “Do you love me?”, would you grieve? Would you get angry? Do you think, maybe, He does ask us that?
But Jesus doesn’t say the Ephesian church doesn’t love him anymore. He only says they have lost their first love. Their love toward Jesus has cooled.
They still love Jesus in Ephesus. They just don’t love Him as much as they used to. Or rather, they just don’t love as much—Jesus or other people. Yet just this—the cooling of love, the decline of love—is enough to draw this severe threat from the Lord of the Church: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5) In other words, Jesus will bring the church in Ephesus to an end because they have lost their first love. He will cause this church to cease to exist.
Eventually what Jesus warns of here happened to the church in Ephesus. Ephesus was a major city as well as a major center of the early Christian church. But it was destroyed by an invasion of Germanic tribesman in 263 A. D. After being rebuilt by a Roman emperor, throughout the 700’s it suffered from raids by Muslim armies. Meanwhile, its harbor gradually filled with silt. It lost trade as a result, and its standing as a center of commerce declined. By the time Muslim Turks conquered it about 1000 years after the writing of the book of Revelation, it had become a small village. In another four hundred years it was completely abandoned. Whatever remained of the Church of Ephesus, which had once been first among the churches of Asia, was taken away.
St. Peter Lutheran Church in Joliet has several things in common with the church in Ephesus. We were the first Lutheran Church in Joliet. Most of the other Missouri Synod congregations for miles around were birthed by St. Peter. No apostles ever occupied the pulpit of St. Peter, but God blessed it with at least three gifted pastors in its 159 years. There have been others who have perhaps not had as many gifts, but they were faithful in teaching God’s pure Word and administering His Sacraments.
Yet today we have declined to a shadow of the church’s former strength. Many of us wonder how many years St. Peter has left.
Like the Church in Ephesus, a lot of earthly factors have contributed to our declining attendance. Although the city of Joliet has grown numerically it has declined economically, causing many of the sons and daughters of our congregation to move elsewhere. Then there is the decay of the neighborhood from a prosperous area to a slum with the reputation of being dangerous.
Yet Jesus doesn’t say that the decline of the city of Ephesus will cause the Ephesian church to disappear. He says, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” If the Ephesians in fact did not repent, then it wasn’t the invasions and earthquakes and the filling in of the harbor that caused the church in Ephesus to disappear.
Rather, Jesus caused those calamities in order to remove their lampstand from its place.
And if this is what happened, it was all because they had lost their first love. So as we see our church on the verge of being removed from its place, what should we be asking ourselves except, “Has St. Peter lost its first love?”
If we look back at our history, we can see evidence of St. Peter’s love for Christ, His Word, and those who do not know and believe it.
In 1870, St. Peter called a pastor from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. At that time the German Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States was only 23 years old. St. Peter was only 13 years old. The young bearded pastor that came fresh from the seminary, the Rev. Carl Rothe, spent 8 years here—and only at the end of his ministry did the congregation make its first steps toward becoming a confessional Lutheran congregation, when it accepted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession of 1530 as a summary confession of the faith held by the congregation. Prior to that, for 25 years, St. Peter had “Lutheran” in the title of their name, but apparently was not clear on what they meant by saying they were Lutheran. By accepting the Augsburg Confession, they publicly confessed the doctrine of the early Lutheran reformers as their own.
Pastor Rothe was followed in office by his brother-in-law, Pastor August Schuessler, who had been pastor in a small town south of here. Some time in the 1880s, St. Peter became a member congregation of the Missouri Synod, after it embraced the entire Book of Concord of 1580 as its confession of faith.
What does this show about St. Peter in those days? It shows that they had a love for Christ and His Word and were willing to be instructed from it. They went from being a congregation that called itself “Lutheran” in a generic way to being a congregation that received the entire doctrine of the Lutheran Church.
St. Peter then was a congregation that loved Christ. As a result, it was willing to test whether its faith was in line with God’s Word. And when they found that it was not, they were willing to repent and receive the full teaching of God’s Word.
St. Peter also had a desire to see Christ’s Kingdom extended on earth. They loved their neighbors and were willing to work to see the Gospel spread and bring people to faith in Christ. In the early part of the 20th century, for many years, St. Peter not only maintained a Sunday School for its own children, but operated one on the other side of town. They called it “the mission Sunday School.” One imagines that the “mission Sunday School” ministered to kids whose parents were not willing or able to bring their children up as Christians. St. Peter didn’t simply expect that parents be responsible to bring their children to Sunday School and church—they actively sought out the children who, for whatever reason, were not being taught the Scriptures at the age when it is most critical that children learn them. That was a measure of their faith in Christ’s Word and their love for those who were separated from it.
How do we measure up to the “first love” of our congregation?
The love that St. Peter showed in its early years for the word of God, evidenced by their willingness to grow in it, to learn from it and acknowledge when their knowledge and confession of it had been deficient—is that still present among us? By no means. As your pastor for ten years, I can bear witness that many of St. Peter’s members—most—do not remember the basic teachings of God’s Word found in the Small Catechism. It’s not simply that they no longer remember the words of the catechism—which itself should not be; it should not be that a congregation that says it adheres to the confessions of the Lutheran Church does not remember the simple form of the faith that “the head of the family should teach…to his household.”
But not only do very few remember the words of the catechism; very many also have forgotten the content of the catechism. Forgotten that the church of Christ is not everyone who can be enticed to show up to worship, but “the communion of saints…[that] those who believe in Christ…but only believers, are members of the church.” Forgotten that a person cannot become a believer in Christ by their “own reason or strength”, much less by means of techniques designed by men to appeal to unbelievers, but that the Holy Spirit must call a person by the Gospel, enlighten him with His gifts, sanctify and keep him in the true faith. Forgotten that when a person visits St. Peter with a different confession of faith than the one taught by the Holy Spirit, we are not permitted to share the body and blood of Christ with that person, but invite that person to first be instructed and confess with us God’s Word in its purity.
Yet not only have many people at St. Peter forgotten these teachings that they once learned and confessed, they have often responded to them with anger when they were presented to them again. But even where this is not the case, the majority of members of St. Peter have proven themselves less than eager to re-learn or to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word.
The love St. Peter had at first for God’s Word is not here anymore.
For the last ten years, I have conducted these series in the fall, in which I exhorted those who came to devote themselves anew to the Christian life, to Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer, Giving, Serving, and Witnessing. I pleaded with the congregation over the years to come to Bible Class during these weeks, if at no other time during the year, so that we could come together and examine ourselves as a congregation. To repent where we had been negligent in these things. To hear God’s pardon for our sin through the death of His Son. To encourage one another to grow in these things that are fruits of faith in Christ.
Early on, I sent out mailings and letters trying to gather the congregation together. In more recent years I begged and pleaded with those who were present in the Divine Service to come to Bible Class. And for ten years there has been little to no response. Those who didn’t come at all didn’t come. Those who do attend the Divine Service but not Bible Class, with few exceptions, ignored my pleading.
And even this year, when the church is in critical condition, and everyone knows it, there is no increased sense of urgency—at least no sense of urgency to turn to God and His Word. The love St. Peter once had amongst its own members is not like its first love. If this love still exists, it is not the love that recognizes that our mutual well-being as a church depends first and foremost on our listening to God and, believing His promises, walking in the ways of prayer, giving, serving, and witnessing.
Finally, what about St. Peter’s love for the lost outside the Church? Is there an earnest love that compels us to bring the Gospel outside of the walls of our congregation, like that which once drove St. Peter to start a mission Sunday School?
There is a zeal among some, to be sure, who devote countless hours to Vacation Bible School every summer, and others who have tried in various ways to bring God’s Word to the youth and to the families at Evergreen Terrace. But the congregation as a whole does not work as a body to reach out and to welcome in those who are outside. And that is what we need. How difficult a stumbling block we place in front of our new members when, after undergoing catechesis for several months, they join the church, and find so many members who have so little interest in what they spent the last several months learning, and who seem to have little joy about someone else confessing that faith and doctrine as their own!
What I am saying is very difficult to hear. It may make you angry to hear it. Perhaps you think I’m not presenting the whole story.
Yet I doubt that there are many who will dispute that St. Peter as a congregation has lost its first love. We can see clearly enough by their absence that in many people this love—for Christ, for His Word, His people—has died completely. And certainly in some, if not many of us, it has died or grown very cold.
The loss of their first love meant the removal of the church of Ephesus. And as we see our lampstand being removed, we should hear clearly Jesus’ words to them in our ears: “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” (Rev. 2:5)
Why did Jesus threaten to take away the church in Ephesus because they had lost their first love? Because faith and love are always together. We say correctly that “faith alone saves,” that “a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the Law.” (Rom. 3:28) But faith that saves, faith in Christ, is always followed by love. Because faith in Christ is worked by the Holy Spirit, who at the same time renews our heart, so that it is not the selfish, cold heart of the old Adam only. Instead, Jesus dwells in our hearts by faith (Ephesians 3:17)—the same Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. Yes, the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5). So where love is on the wane, faith in Christ is dying as well.
If only you would hear Jesus and not cast these words behind you! That you would realize the terrible seriousness of this, that Jesus truly and earnestly threatens to close a church because it abandon[s] the love [it] had at first! (Rev. 2:4) He threatens this to us not out of spite or vengefulness, but because He desires our salvation! When a church loses its first love, there will be members of whom this is not true. Those members Jesus will not abandon. But those who have fallen away or who continue on the path of falling are not simply in danger of seeing their congregation close, but of seeing themselves shut out of the Church of Christ in heaven. Jesus warns us so that this may not happen to us—not only the tragedy of Him removing a congregation like a branch on a vine that bears no fruit—but the tragedy of the members of that congregation individually being removed and cast into the fire and burned (John 15:5-6).
He warns so that there may be a change of heart—a repentance, in individuals, and in the congregation as a whole.
He says “Remember from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.” Then He will not remove your lampstand from its place.
That means that we return to St. Peter’s first love—to an eagerness to hear, learn, and grow in God’s Word; an eagerness to abide in all Christ’s teaching; an eager desire to proclaim and spread this Word. To return to newborn love for Jesus and the souls He died to save, inside and outside the Church.
It is not enough that we repent of our failure to hear God’s Word and spread it simply because we don’t want to see our congregation die. Repentance means to recognize our sin against the Lord who loved us, and to trust in the blood He shed to cancel that sin and purify us of it. And then, out of that faith and trust, to do the works of love the congregation once did—to gladly hear God’s Word and gladly proclaim it to the world.
Those who have not fallen from their first love repent of those inclinations and impulses they see in themselves that would dampen their love for Christ and His Word. Those who are growing cold turn again to Jesus with their dying love with sorrow. And those whose love has died fall at the feet of Jesus who is able to raise the dead.
You may rightly sense the difficulty of this—indeed, its impossibility. How can we restore love for Christ? Even human love is something difficult to keep, and difficult to revive once it has decreased—much less when it has died completely. But the love of God is not within our power to establish in our hearts. It must be poured out into them by the Holy Spirit.
All this is true, and there is no escaping it. Love is from God (1 John 4:7) says John in his first epistle. Just as the faith in Christ that saves us is not from ourselves but is the gift of God, so that no one may boast (Eph. 2:9), God also must work His love in our hearts, or we will remain cold and loveless. Yet God desires to work both faith and love in the hearts of all people, because Jesus has redeemed all people through His suffering and death. And so God appointed means by which He gives the Holy Spirit and gives the gift of faith and the love that follow from it.
Those means are the Word and the Sacraments; if we are to regain our first love and the faith that produced it, God must do it. But He has promised to do it by means of the Word and Sacraments. Which means the salvation of our souls and of our congregation is to be found in the Divine Service and in Scripture.
But we have already had those things, and we still ended up where we are now!
That is true. But if the means God appointed to work faith and love in our hearts haven’t worked, it isn’t because those means are not effective, or that God only works through them sometimes. The fault is with us. Too often we have neglected the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and the reading of Scripture. We have received them a couple of times a month, or less. We have not read the Scriptures in our homes or been willing to study them in church. And even when we were present to hear the Word preached and receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood, we did not really receive.
We didn’t listen. Maybe you didn’t think that preaching is God’s Word—you thought it was just the opinion of whoever occupied the pulpit. Or when you listened to the reading of Scripture you tuned it out because you figured you had heard it before. You came to the divine service, and particularly the Lord’s Supper, without preparation—not examining yourself to see whether you repented of your sins and believed what Jesus said He was giving. You came to church half-asleep because you were doing other things the night before. Or you came without prayer and readiness to hear God speak and work in you because you didn’t realize how badly you needed Him to do so. You came but got annoyed if you didn’t get to sing the right hymns, were irritated if I didn’t conduct the service as you thought it should be done. You had expectations of how the service was supposed to go and were certain of the rightness of your indignation if those expectations weren’t met.
You did not realize that you were closing your heart to the Holy Spirit who desired to work in you. Whether you neglected opportunities to hear or read God’s Word, or whether you physically presented yourselves but did not seriously listen.
Once a month for several years I have been teaching a class on the Book of Concord, the confessions of the Lutheran Church. One of the documents in the Book of Concord is called The Formula of Concord, written about three decades after the death of Martin Luther to settle certain controversies that arose after his death. It has a wonderful section in which it talks about how God always wills to work through His Word, preached, read, or taught, to bring about faith and love in those who by nature are without both.
It says, “We should never regard this call from God, which takes place through the preaching of the Word, as some kind of deception. Instead, we should know that God reveals His will through it, namely, that he wills to work through His Word in those whom he has called, so that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved. For the Word through which we are called is a ministry of the Spirit. It ‘gives the Spirit,’ or through it the Spirit is conferred (2 Cor. 3); it is a ‘power of God’ that saves [Rom. 1]. Because the Holy Spirit wills to be efficacious and to give strength, power, and ability through the Word, it is God’s will that we accept the Word and believe and follow it…
Therefore, if people wish to be saved…they should listen to Christ…He testifies to all people without distinction that God wills all people who are burdened and weighed down with sins to come to him, so that they may be given rest and be saved.
According to Christ’s teaching they should abstain from sin, repent, trust the promise, and rely completely upon Christ. Because we are not capable of doing this by our own powers, the Holy Spirit wills to effect to repentance and faith in us through the Word and the sacraments. And that we may complete this and persist and remain faithful in it, we should call upon God for his grace, which he has promised us in Holy Baptism, and not doubt that in accord with His promise He will convey it to us, as He has promised…
Next, the Holy Spirit dwells in the elect who have believed as He dwells in His temple and is not idle in them but impels the children of God to obey God’s commands. Therefore, believers should in the same way not be idle either, much less resist the impetus of God’s Spirit, but should practice all Christian virtues…and should diligently seek to “confirm their call and election” [2 Peter 1:10], so that the more they recognize the Spirit’s power and strength in themselves, the less they doubt their election…
According to His normal arrangement, the Father draws people by the power of His Holy Spirit through the hearing of His holy, divine Word, as with a net, through which the elect are snatched out of the jaws of the devil. For this reason every poor sinner should act in such a way as to hear the Word diligently and not doubt that the Father is drawing people to Himself. For the Holy Spirit wills to be present with His power in the Word and to work through it. This is the drawing of the Father.
The reason why not all who hear the Word believe it (and thus receive the greater damnation) is not that God has not allowed them to be saved. Instead, it is their own fault, for they heard the Word not so that they might learn from it but only to despise, revile, and ridicule it; and they resisted the Holy Spirit, who wanted to work in them through the Word… (FC SD XI: 29, 70-73, 76-78)
The Holy Spirit will restore all who have fallen and those who have faltered to their first love through His Word and Sacraments. So we should attend to them the way we would attend to medicine that would save our lives on earth, because indeed there is no other medicine to restore faith in Christ and love to our congregation.
Those who do this will rise from their fall to conquer their sinful nature, the world, and the devil. And Jesus holds out a great promise to the ones who conquer by faith in Him—He will give them to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
You may remember how in his final hours a criminal who was crucified next to Jesus turned to Him and said, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The man, dying on the cross for his own sin, under the judgment of God, nearing the final minutes of a life spent in wickedness, arose and conquered. Jesus promised him the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God.
Why? Because through His Word, Jesus brought this man to faith in Him. With this faith came love; in his final minutes He spoke in defense of Jesus. He loved the man he rebuked and sought to bring him salvation even while both were dying condemned for their sins. He loved Jesus and confessed the truth about Him—that He had done nothing to deserve crucifixion, nothing sinful at all. He loved Jesus because He believed Jesus’ word, that the suffering He endured was to redeem even the criminal from his life of disobedience to God.
We may be at the end of the road as a congregation. It may be that even with repentance and renewal we are not to continue as a congregation, for some reason known only to our Lord Jesus.
Yet the reward of conquering with Jesus is not our congregation’s future on earth. It is the right to eat from the tree of life and dwell in the presence of God in paradise. The fruit of the tree of life, however, begins for those who repent and believe the Gospel today. To eat that fruit, to taste and see that the Lord is good, is to believe in the Son of God, who came that we might have life, who came to bear our offenses. Whoever believes in Jesus “eats His flesh and drinks His blood” (John 6), receiving life from His sacrificial death. As they go on eating from this tree of life, they are transformed by Him; they taste His love, and desire more of it. And the more they receive it, the more they love Him in return, the more they love those that He loves.
You are about to come eat this fruit of paradise, the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for your salvation. Let us come with repentance for all the times we have eaten this fruit and not come forth from this altar to conquer with Jesus our natural lovelessness. Let us come with the bitter taste of repentance that we may begin to taste the sweetness of His love toward us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5).
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
The Gospel is spoken to those only who acknowledge their sins, and their sins they acknowledge when they repent of them. But this Gospel is of no use to the Pharisees, for they do not acknowledge their sins. To those, however, who do acknowledge them, and are about to despair, the Gospel must be brought…
Therefore, when you feel your sins gnawing at you, and feel your heart trembling and agitated, place yourself beside the publicans where they are standing. These are the very ones who shall receive the Gospel. Do so joyously, and say: “Oh God! It is thy word that says there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine righteous persons, who need no repentance, and that all the righteous and angels are to interpose and cover up sins. Now, Oh, God! I have come to this that I feel my sins. I am already judged. I need but the one Shepherd who seeketh me; and I will therefore freely venture on thy Gospel.”
It is thus that you come to God. You are already the sheep placed upon his shoulders. You have found the Shepherd. You are the piece of silver in the hand. You are the one over whom is joy in heaven in the presence of all the angels. We are not to worry, if we do not experience or feel this at once. Sin will daily decrease, and its sting will drive you to seek God. You must struggle against this feeling by faith, and say: “Oh God! I know thou hast said this, and I lean upon thy Word. I am the sheep and the piece of silver; thou the shepherd and the woman.”
You might say: Yes, this I will gladly do; but I cannot atone for my sins. I can render no satisfaction for them. Consider then the publicans and sinners. What good have they done? None. They came to God, heard his Word and believed it. Do the same.
It is exceedingly difficult for the human heart to expect with certainty everything good of God and to appreciate all grace and mercy. Indeed, it is altogether impossible except through Christ the mediator. Coarse and impious hearts may be very strong and haughty at this point, bearing themselves hard in much conceit, and thinking that what they do is all very precious in the sight of God. Yes, they may do this until they come upon the peril and terror of death, brought about through the clear revelation of the Law; then there are upon all the earth no people more dejected and despairing. When their hour has come, they go down suddenly and no one can raise them up again.
36. Much better and safer and more comforting, therefore, is the state of those who are constantly striving and struggling with terror and fear of God’s wrath, and who are so afraid that when they hear the name of God mentioned the world becomes too strait for them. Just for these has this comfort been uttered; yes, for their sakes God has at all times declared the promise of his grace and of the forgivness of sins, and to that end has given his Son and all the good in the whole world, overwhelming it with blessings, in order that they, by all means, may learn to know his grace and goodness which, as Psalms 52 and 36 say, endureth continually, and reacheth unto the skies. The fact that a Christian lives and that he possesses a sound member is due solely to the visible grace and help of God. For the devil, in whose kingdom the Christians are, here upon earth, is such a wicked, malicious spirit that he aims at nothing else, day and night, than to murder and destroy them.
37. But however great, both in word and deed, God’s promise of grace is toward those that fear him, yet they cannot lift up their hearts and joyfully look upon God. They are still constantly harassed with anxiety and fear lest God may be angry with them on account of their unworthiness and the weakness which is theirs. If they hear an angry word from God, or recall or learn of some fearful example of God’s wrath and punishment, then they tremble and fear lest it strike them. The other class, on the contrary, who indeed should tremble before God, stiffly and proudly despise these things in their security, and comfort themselves with the carnal notion that God cannot be angry with them. Very difficult is it for the human heart to so balance itself that it will not become secure in success and prosperity, but remain humble, and again, in times of fear and misfortune, enjoy comfort and confidence toward God.
Martin Luther, Sermon on the Gospel for Pentecost, Church Postil
1st Sunday after Epiphany
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 2:41-52
January 11, 2015
“Losing Jesus”—heavily indebted to Tilemann Heshusius
The first thing to notice in the Gospel for this first Sunday after Epiphany is the diligence of Mary and Joseph in keeping the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” Because every year they went up to Jerusalem for the Passover festival.
Now God had instituted three holy festivals in which all the males in Israel were to appear before God’s presence at the temple. These were the feast of tabernacles, the Feast of weeks (which we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of the Passover, which occurred at our Easter. As you can imagine, it was not easy to do this. It was several days’ journey on foot from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and if it is difficult for us to get all the kids into the car to go to church on Sunday morning, or to get aching bones to make the treacherous walk up steps and across parking lots into our church, you can imagine how it was difficult to take young children and old bones on a several day journey into a strange city to worship the Lord.
Yet the Gospel tells us that the Holy Family made this journey every year. Why did they do it? Because it was the law of the Lord. But it was a joyful duty, just as going to church is a joyful duty. Because there the were gathered together with all the people of God to hear His word and rejoice in His salvation. Every Passover, before the presence of God in the temple, the story of the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt would be proclaimed, and they would eat the Passover lamb which died so that judgment would pass by the Israelites and they would become God’s redeemed people. They were redeemed with the blood of the lamb. And in the same way we also gather together with God’s people on Sunday and eat the true Passover lamb who was slain for our redemption from sin—the body and blood of our Lord Jesus who redeemed us in His crucifixion on the tree at Calvary. So it is not simply a commandment of the law that we fulfill because God threatens us with punishment if we don’t. It is a joy to hear God’s Word, because in it He gives us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
So first from this Gospel we should take to heart the example of Mary and Joseph and cling with diligence to the public preaching of God’s Word. Many people ignore and treat lightly the preaching of God’s Word. They figure they know already what the pastor is going to say. Or they may say, “I can read the Bible at home. Why do I need to go to church?” Sometimes people are blessed to have a gifted preacher as a pastor, but more often the pastor’s gifts at preaching are average.
But we should not regard the preaching of God’s Word in this way, according to human reason. God highly exalts the public preaching of His Word. Through the public preaching of His word He wants to be active through His Holy Spirit in convicting us of our sins and in working faith in Christ in our hearts so that we are saved and also living and active in good works. God has highly exalted the preaching of His word and the ministry of the word and sacraments. He says of His preachers in Luke chapter 10: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me.” As a result whenever a minister is preaching faithfully, no matter how humble his skills at speaking, he is speaking as Christ’s own ambassador and messenger, bringing Christ’s own message, which is a powerful word that brings with it the Holy Spirit and works faith and eternal life. Thus we should cling to the public preaching of the word and regard it highly, as Mary and Joseph did. We should not despise it but regard it as God’s own word, this preaching, and seek to hear it as often as we can, while at the same time reading the word in our homes and learning the catechism diligently. That’s the example the Holy Family sets before us, and if we follow it and treasure preaching and God’s Word our homes will be blessed.
They will be blessed, like Mary and Joseph’s house. But being blessed does not mean that they will be without affliction, suffering, and hardship. In this Gospel reading we also see that Mary suffered a great and terrible affliction even though she was living a godly life of hearing the word of God and being faithful in her calling.
Her affliction was that she lost Jesus, who was 12 years old at the time. The story is short, so it’s easy to miss the seriousness of this. Imagine if one of the mothers in our church lost a 12 year old child of theirs for 3 days. The parents wouldn’t be able to eat or sleep. They would drop everything and think of nothing except finding the lost child. And the parent’s hearts, particularly the mother’s, would be torn in two. There would be crying and grief that would cut to the heart anyone who heard it. And it wouldn’t just be the parents. All the loved ones and relations would be worried and upset. The whole church would share in the parents’ grief.
This was the grief and agony Mary had when Jesus turned up missing during the journey back to Nazareth. But her grief was still worse. This was no ordinary child who was missing. Mary had heard from the angel that this child was the Son of God. She knew He had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she knew from the shepherds who had visited her and from Anna and Simeon’s prophecies that Jesus was the Savior of the world. Can you imagine, not only losing your beloved only son, but also losing the world’s Savior? Mary was not only burdened with the grief of her own loss but with guilt at having lost the only Son of God who was to bring salvation to the world.
Sometimes Christians experience Mary’s sorrow. They seem to lose Jesus. For unbelievers the sorrow a Christian experiences at seeming to have lost Jesus is incomprehensible. But to a Christian it can be the most severe pain imaginable.
How do we lose Jesus? We can’t really lose Him, can we? We can indeed lose Christ and salvation through willful sin, but I’m speaking of another kind of loss. This is when a Christian wants to believe in Christ and be comforted by Him but their faith is shaken. Perhaps they are assailed by doubts about the truth of parts of the faith or the Scriptures even though they don’t want to be. Perhaps they are overwhelmed by temptations to sin or renounce Christ, even though they fight against them. Perhaps suffering or death has driven out all the comfort they once experienced from believing in this child Jesus. Perhaps the devil confronts us with the magnitude of our sins or our repeated falls and holds before our eyes the picture of God’s wrath with such clarity that we begin to despair of being saved.
There are innumerable ways that the world, the devil, and the flesh have of driving the comfort of Christ and the feeling of faith from our hearts. At those times Christians feel like they have lost Christ and can’t find Him anywhere. This is a terrible affliction. It is the feeling of hell pressing in on us while we are still alive in this world.
If we experience this, we should remember this Gospel. It shows that we are not the first to feel like we have lost Jesus. Mary, the mother of God herself, had the experience of losing Jesus, and it seemed to her like all the grief and terror in the world had closed in on her. But God brought her consolation again. And this experience was not unique to Mary, but is common to saints, that is, to believers in Christ. Time does not permit listing all the examples. The disciples had this experience more than once. They thought that they were doomed in the storm on the sea of Galilee when Jesus was sleeping in the boat. Then when they had denied Christ and He lay hidden from them for three days in the tomb, they were sure that they had lost Jesus. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12 that God allowed him to have a messenger from Satan in his flesh to torment him. And David tells the story in the Psalms repeatedly of feeling like he had lost Christ.
What are we to do when this happens to us, and we feel like we have lost Jesus? The first thing Mary did was look for Jesus among her friends and relatives. However she did not find Him there. Sometimes if we are experiencing depression or some other earthly affliction, we can be helped by seeking advice and comfort from family, friends, doctors, and so on. But Mary didn’t find Jesus there, where reason and human nature would think to look. She found Him in the temple, sitting among the teachers. Jesus was found in the things of His Father. He was found where God’s Word is.
This is where we will find Jesus when we feel we have lost Him. When this happens we shouldn’t sit still and simply despair or hang our heads or give way to spiritual depression. We should look diligently for Jesus in the things of His Father. We should cling to the preaching of God’s Word, because there the Father reveals Jesus, makes Him known, gives Him to us, kindles love for Him and comfort in His salvation. We should receive the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, because that sacrament is instituted for the strengthening of weak faith and the comfort of those who are distressed by sin. We should diligently pray and read God’s Word and not give up. And we should seek out the consolation of experienced Christians, particularly the pastor, whose office it is to speak God’s Word to comfort us. Especially the pastor can pronounce the forgiveness of sins to you personally, which is of great comfort in spiritual afflictions.
Jesus is found where God’s Word is. When we feel that we have lost Jesus, we look for Him in the word and sacraments. There He will restore comfort to those who fear that they have lost Him, just as He did to His mother Mary.
For He is the true Passover lamb who was slain to redeem us from all our sins. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that it might be saved through Him. This is a trustworthy saying, says 1 Timothy chapter 1—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
When Mary found Jesus in the temple they were probably discussing the meaning of Passover. Jesus was learning God’s Word, learning from it about His work to redeem sinners. So when we feel that we are lost sinners who cannot find Christ, we should look for the Lord Jesus where He is to be found—in His Father’s things, in the preaching of the word. There the Father gives His son to us as our Passover lamb who was slain to redeem us from all sin and make us God’s own people.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Prayer in Great Weakness of Faith
Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz
O Lord, I now experience it in truth, that not everyone has faith. I believe, dear Lord, but help my unbelief! You who would not break the crushed reed, nor put out the smoldering wick, O Jesus, You who sit at the right hand of God, intercede and pray for me, that my faith may not cease. Be the beginner and the finisher of faith, wherewith I extinguish all the fiery darts of the evil one. Let me believe, even if I cannot see, and so be saved. Amen.
(Johann Albinus, Pastor at Naumburg. d. 1679)
It would be very much in order were we to employ such arrogance when addressing the devil and say, I have God’s Word and I know that with it I have accomplished much good–some I have instructed, others I have admonished, here I have helped some with charitable gifts; I know these to be good works in spite of the devil’s slander. I say, we may boast before the devil, because we have received nothing from him. But toward God, from whom we have everything, we may not boast; rather we must humble ourselves.
Luther, House Postil, Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (first sermon, part 11)