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.
But such strength is quite rare in the world. For how many are they now, who so take up the subject, that they be certain of their faith and life in their hearts, that they can firmly hold to them and despise all other things? Yes, the whole world does not come to this point that they intend to have God’s Word and to live according to it. It is desired nowhere, rather despised in the highest degree. The majority live according to their insolence toward God’s Word and strengthen themselves only in their wickedness and devilish ways…But we talk now of those which would gladly be Christians and who are serious about the Word, which have trouble and labor with it and must defend themselves with all might so that they do not also get into such ways, that they do not regard the word or faithfully wait upon their calling.
As the devil cannot let faith go unattacked, so that he may tear us away from the Word, so also can he not leave our life in peace either, and he has no rest until he makes you falter. He drives such thoughts into the heart that you should find your station tedious, not desire it, and become impatient with it. Whoever now here is not armed so that he can stand fast, nor knows how to defend himself with the Word, the devil soon overcomes, as he did the others, which he totally rules with lack of desire and boredom in their stations. He lets no one find pleasure in his station and work. Even the heathen lament this, because they saw and felt it everywhere, what a noxious plague it is, that no one lets himself be satisfied with his office and station, but instead always gapes after another and holds it to be better. As they say, an ox would gladly be a horse, and again the horse an ox; a farmer or townsman would gladly be a nobleman, the nobleman a prince, the prince emperor, etc. Out of displeasure with one’s calling follows unfaithfulness, that no one his commanded office and work diligently waits upon, but instead despises it and either undertakes another, or cheats his neighbor in it and does him wrong.
6. What “Be Strong in the Lord” Means
This is so much as to say, be so minded that you hold fast and remain with that which you have received, and each carry out his faith and his office well, and not follow or give in to the devil’s promptings or his own flesh and the world’s enticements. Guard yourself, that you do not allow yourself to be hindered, nor to be made tired and faint, that you let up from your faith and office, or become lazy and sluggish. It is necessary to be strong and fight, because we have such a foe (as we will hear) who everywhere attacks and harries us with all his might and powers, and without ceasing [attacks?] with evil thoughts and poisonous, destructive tongues, and [bruises?] both the ears and the heart, in order that we should not regard the word, nor with seriousness carry it out. [He works] that in our station or office we become careless, inattentive, depleted, and impatient, until he brings it about that you no longer stand firm, but instead, loose and unstable, stagger here and there, and fall from one thing to another, both in doctrine and life. To be strong in the Lord means to stand firm and fixedly, and to hold to the doctrine which you have received from the Lord, which teaches us how we should believe in Christ. And thereafter we should so live, that each one serve his neighbor in his station and calling, and faithfully and diligently wait upon [our office.]
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
Jubilate—The Fourth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:16-22
April 26, 2015
“When Jesus Dies in Us”
The Gospel reading today deals with Christ’s death and resurrection. This is what our Lord is talking about when He tells the disciples, “A little while and you will see me no more, and again a little while and you will see Me.” The little while where the disciples will not see Him is the time He is lying in the grave. This is easy even for children to figure out because we confess in the creed, “I believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified, died, and was buried, and the third day He rose again from the dead.” We may wonder how the disciples had such a hard time understanding this.
But it is one thing to understand that Jesus died and rose again in theory and in words, and it is another thing to believe that Jesus will rise again when you see Him dead. The disciples were told by Jesus that He would die and rise again on the third day, but it was one thing to be told it and another to believe it when He was dead and taken from them.
It wasn’t simply that Jesus was taken away from them physically that caused the disciples great sorrow. It is indeed difficult to lose someone you love and not have their bodily presence, and the disciples loved Jesus. But it is a greater sorrow to lose someone spiritually, where you have no hope of ever seeing them again. And this is how the disciples felt when Jesus had died. It wasn’t just Jesus who had died. It seemed that their faith in Him had died as well. Because they had believed—rightly—that Jesus was the Son of God. But they thought that mean that He was going to set up a kingdom on earth and make them rulers together with Him. And when He was crucified and died without setting up any earthly kingdom, it appeared to them that their faith had proven false. Then it was not just a matter of losing Jesus bodily. They had (it seemed) lost the One they put their trust in. It appeared that the One they called Lord was no Lord at all. So they had not only lost Jesus their friend and teacher but Jesus the Son of God. This was a great, horrible trial for them. All at once they were plunged into hell and despair because in losing Jesus they had lost their God.
This same trial happens to Christians now. We know that Jesus rose from the dead after He was crucified. So we do not, like the disciples, mourn on Good Friday as though we had lost God. We know that Easter is coming. But when sorrow comes to us and Christ seems to be dead and taken away from us, then we are often slow to believe that an Easter will come.
Sorrow comes to us in many forms. Sometimes we lose our health or our wealth or our loved ones die and we are overtaken by sorrow. More rarely, we suffer the loss of our good name or property or even our lives for the sake of Christ. But all of these are only bodily sorrows, as great as they may be. The great suffering comes when we believe or feel that Jesus has been taken away from us. In Romans chapter 8 it says, “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we lose loved ones, property, or reputation, but our hearts are still assured that we have not lost Jesus, we are “more than conquerors,” as Paul writes. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His only Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8) If we lose wealth or reputation or loved ones but we still have Jesus, we still have the One who has given us all these gifts, and He is able to restore to us more than we have lost. In fact we have His assurance that He will restore to us more than we lose in this life.
But if we lose Jesus, we have lost everything. Then there is no comfort for us. Not even God can comfort us, because if we lose Jesus we lose God.
But how can we lose Jesus? When we no longer feel the assurance from God’s Word that our sins are forgiven for His sake. When we feel that He is no longer with u—that we are forsaken by Him. When we begin to doubt if the Word of God is true. When these things happen it loos to us like Christ has been taken away from us, just like it looked to the disciples when Jesus was dead and buried that He had been taken away from them. Then it looked like they had lost Jesus forever and that their hope was in vain. We know that Jesus would rise again from the dead, but they didn’t know that, couldn’t see or feel that. The only way they could have known was by faith in His Word, that their loss of Jesus would only be for a little while.
So that we may learn not only to say that Jesus died and rose again, but so that we also learn to believe it with our whole being, God allows us to experience sorrow, even at times to experience that we have lost Jesus. When that happens to you He is teaching you to believe in His death and resurrection not only in a historical way, but that it also happens for you and in you. He is teaching you to learn to put your trust in what He says in this Gospel: “A little while and you will not see Me, and again a little while and you will see Me.” When we do not see Jesus and our faith in Him appears to be dead, that is serious grief. Then it appears that we have lost everything. It is a spiritual suffering that only Christians experience, the experience of desiring and hungering to have Jesus but feeling as though He has been taken away forever.
Then Jesus wants us to hold on to these words. “A little while,” He says. It will only be a little while that I am taken away from you. Then you will see Me against and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy away from you. This happens in this life when Jesus seems to be taken away from us and then, after the little time of trial is over, He comforts us again. But it will finally and perfectly happen when Jesus returns visibly and we see Him not only by the assurance of faith but with our eyes. Then we will experience the fullness of joy. But when we pass through times where Jesus seems to be gone from us and then He comforts us again, these are only little sips or bites from the feast of joy that is to be ours when we see Jesus again.
Meanwhile, we should recognize that the world also has its spiritual joy, and that is the joy in seeing Christ taken out of the way, put out of its sight so that He cannot be seen or heard from again. The chief priests rejoiced when the apostles lamented. They wanted nothing more than for Christ to be a fake and a fraud and have Him taken away bodily and spiritually. They wanted Him to be killed and silenced so that they would no longer hear His voice convicting them of sin and proclaiming that forgiveness of sins was through Him alone. When Jesus seemed to be taken away, the world rejoiced while His disciples mourned. And it is the same today. The world wants Jesus taken away. He is no longer visibly present, but He is present in His word and sacraments and mystically present in His Church, which is His body. So the world rejoices at nothing more than seeing Christ silenced and taken away in the silencing and destruction of His Church.
So while we weep and lament, the world rejoices. When it seems that Christ is gone and the faith of Christians is dying, the world rejoices, because it is looking for any excuse not to have to listen to Christ that He is the Way and the Truth and the Life. And Christians are walking testimonies to Christ. So we shouldn’t be surprised when the world rejoices at our suffering. Right now we are watching as our society goes on a crusade to root out and humiliate people who still believe in the sixth commandment—You shall not commit adultery. And the voices pushing for the legitimization of sexual immorality seem to be winning, while Christians seem to be unable to stop the bleeding of their members off into the ranks of those who profess no religious affiliation.
To this too Jesus says, “A little while and you will see Me no more, and again a little while and you will see Me.” The world rejoices and we lament. The world seems to be winning and we seem to be dying, and Jesus seems to have forsaken us. But He says, “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
The disciples’ hour was when Jesus died and they appeared to have lost Him forever. We individually experience times when we seem to have lost Jesus. Perhaps now, when the Church in our country seems to be in full retreat, to be dying, perhaps now is our hour. But Jesus says it is only for a little while, and then we will no longer remember the anguish for joy. Our sorrow will turn into joy.
When Jesus dies in us it is to teach us to hope in Him that He will also rise from the dead in us. So let us learn to judge rightly—not by our feelings, but by Christ’s Word. When we appear to have lost Christ it does not feel like a little while. It feels like an eternity, because we have lost not a temporary good but the eternal good, the source of every blessing. But He says it is not forever that we have lost Him but just “a little while.” So in a little while He will comfort us again. A little while after He was crucified and buried He rose from the dead and showed Himself to the disciples and gave them joy. A little while we suffer the hell of seeming to have lost Christ, a little while He seems to have died in us, but He will rise3 from the dead in us. A little while we go on living in this world of death even though we have already died with Him in Baptism. But soon enough we will be raised with Him. A little while the church suffers and is weak but she will not remain this way, because her head has risen from the dead. A little while we have sorrow in the Church and do not see our Lord, but He gives us death and resurrection in His body and blood. And soon the death will be over and we will be raised up and know the fullness of joy.
Soli Deo Gloria