St. Bartholomew, Apostle (transferred)/ Altar Guild Opening Service
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:43-51
August 25, 2016
“Come and See”
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
“Wait a minute. Cut! I’d like to interject…” Philip and Nathanael (his mother calls him Bartholomew) swivel their black-bearded faces in the direction of the voice, which belongs to a gray-haired man walking toward them, dressed in a jacked with leather elbows and a bow tie. He speaks with a slight east coast accent, and as he talks he gestures with a pipe.
“I understand what you’re trying to do with this scene,” he says to Philip. “You want to tell a compelling story. I get it. But if it’s going to speak to people two thousand years from now, you’re going to have to revise the script. You sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical power and you’re going to lose your audience.”
Philip stares at the man, who goes on: “The thing about Moses. ‘Moses wrote about Him in the Law.’ Reputable scholarship stopped believing Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy in the 19th century. Until relatively recently everyone agreed that these books were cut-and-pasted together from different sources by editors a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived. Everybody that’s educated knows this today, even the partially educated. So let’s try it again without Moses this time.” The bow tied man sits in a canvas chair and puts on sunglasses.
Philip keeps staring at him and finally utters, “Who are you?”
“I’m chair of New Testament at a top-tier divinity school in New England.” Then, in response to Philip’s blank stare, he says, “A scribe, of sorts. Okay, take two.”
Philip turns back to Nathanael. “So, like I was saying, ‘we have found the man who has been written about in the Law and the Prophets’—whoever wrote them—Jesus of Nazareth…”
“Cut!” the professor yells again. “Another thing: you really can’t say that Jesus is the one written about in the Law and the Prophets. The early New Testament community interpreted the Law and the Prophets as foretelling Jesus. Then they wrote the Gospels to show Jesus as the fulfillment of those passages. But to say the Law and the Prophets spoke about Jesus is a stretch, at best. Leaves us open to the charge of anti-semitism, too. Try it again. Take three.”
Philip stands there for a minute trying to figure out what to say. Then he looks at Nathanael and says, slowly, “We have found the man who isn’t really written about in the Law and the Prophets, probably. But there is a community of people who think that the Law and the Prophets wrote about Him. Or at least they want us to think that. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Cut!” the professor cries again. “You can’t say it like that! When you say it that way it sounds like a scam!”
What’s amazing is that so many people let themselves be scammed for so long. The professor in the story isn’t based on a real person, but he is doing what leading bible scholars have done for at least a hundred years. They have taught and written that the Bible is a literary construction made by men to advance certain beliefs, and then creatively interpreted by men to advance certain beliefs. But as far as being historically reliable and telling us about things that actually happened? The Bible doesn’t do that, they say. That’s not its point.
Did this conversation between Jesus, Nathanael, and Philip actually happen? We really can’t know, they say. The idea that the Bible is verbally inspirited by God, and therefore not only the final authority for truth about religious matters, but also true when it speaks about geography, history, or anything else—that has been regarded as “fundamentalism” by scholars for a long time—despite the fact that the authority and clarity of the Scriptures was foundational for the protestant reformation. And these scholars taught the ministers in mainline protestant churches—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, some Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—since before I was born. This skeptical approach to the Bible has become normal in the Catholic Church too.
But laypeople in these churches don’t look at the Bible this way, right? The pastors don’t preach this way, do they? I don’t think they do, generally. It doesn’t work very well for preaching to have the professor bursting in every few verses to correct the Bible. But if this is the way you have been taught to view the Scripture during your training for the pastoral office, it is going to affect how you carry out the work of that office. If the Bible isn’t to be taken literally when it says Moses wrote the Penteteuch, or when it says that Jesus had a conversation with Nathanael, why should it be taken literally when Jesus forbids divorce in it, or when it says it’s immoral to have sex when you’re not married? So is it a surprise that the mainline protestant churches have approved homosexual “marriage” as pleasing to God? If the Bible was put together by human beings to teach what they wanted to teach, why can’t we just put a new spin on it to teach what we think is right now?
And this affects more than simply Christian morality. It attacks the Gospel itself. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1); the healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (Matthew 9). The result of treating the Scriptures as human productions is often revision of the Law of God; but the end result of revising God’s law is that pastors begin to preach to people that they, after all, are not sinners in need of saving. Perhaps we are in a general way—none of us love people as we should. But never in such a way that the specific forms our lovelessness takes are condemned; never in such a way that the sins that our time and place seeks to excuse are made to stand before the unchangeable judgment of the unchanging God. And so the churches, instead of proclaiming the Son of God incarnate and crucified to reconcile sinners to God, by degrees remove the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2:21). God’s grace in freely remitting sins for the sake of the bloody death of His Son on a cross is only necessary for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and cannot raise themselves. It’s not necessary for those who have committed no grievous sins because there are no longer any grievous sins to commit.
And what have the laypeople done in response to this perversion of God’s Word in the mainline churches? Did they walk out when their pastors and teachers revised the ten commandments? Some did. Most didn’t care. They’d gotten used to re-interpreting the Bible when it said things they didn’t agree with a long time ago. When it forbade women from being ordained. When it forbade divorce. When it forbade intercommunion between those who were not united in the one faith and doctrine of Christ. When it forbade Christians to participate in the religious rites of secret societies. And so on, all the way back to the time of the Reformation, when people found the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood in the bread are present in and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper an offense to reason.
But what does all this have to do with the altar guild? In the reading, Nathaniel (who is probably, but not certainly, Bartholomew the apostle, whose feast day was yesterday) expresses skepticism at what he hears from Philip—that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Moses and the Prophets. He considers it unlikely that anything good could come from Nazareth. But Philip says, “Come and see.” Pretty confident, Philip is. He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael about whether or not Nazareth is a dump. He invites him to come and see for himself whether Jesus is the one Moses and the Prophets talked about.
When we talk about Jesus to people who don’t believe in Him, say He is the Savior of the World, and our Savior, they will very likely be skeptical. What do we do then? Sure, you can debate with them if you’re equipped to do so. That has its place. But in the end, answering their objections won’t bring them to Jesus. The Holy Spirit must bring them. And that happens when they “come and see” Jesus.
But where do you go if you want to “come and see” Jesus? He is at the right hand of the Father, where we see Him no longer (John 16). Yet He promised that as His Church goes into the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He commanded: and lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20) If anyone wants to come and see Jesus, we direct them to follow us to the place where His Word is being taught and His sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper are being administered. We say, “Come to church with me and see.”
And what will they see there? We hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, they will see Jesus, true God from eternity, who became human to live among us and fulfill the Law of God that we are unable to keep. Who became sin for us, bearing our offenses on the cross, and was raised from the dead for our justification. We hope that, being made to see Jesus by faith, they will also learn to see His presence with His Church in the Word and Sacraments, and learn to see the little congregation of sinners gathered around them as the community that has been declared righteous by God and adopted as His heirs.
But none of that is what they will see right away. What they will see is an altar with a cross above it. They will see a pulpit and a lectern and candles. They will see some stuff under a sheet in the middle of the altar. They will see pews, bulletins, hymnals, some men dressed in suits handing them pieces of paper and passing a plate. They will see a guy up front in a white robe with a piece of colored cloth around his neck. And the more years go by, the less familiar and comprehensible these sights will be.
And this is where you come in. Can you make people see Jesus by putting oil in the candles, arranging the fair linen just so, ironing the alb? No. Neither can I. A person sees Jesus, believes that He is the Son of God and our Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
But by care and diligence in your work you can give a witness to what we confess. In fact you will give a witness one way or the other. By adorning the altar and chancel with care and beauty and precision you can testify to your faith and the faith of the church that “God Himself is present” in this place. By being careful, diligent, and scrupulous in your cleaning of the sacred vessels you can testify to our own members to the reality that Jesus has truly given us His sacred body and his redeeming blood in the wafers and wine. And as members of the altar guild you can be leaven in the congregation, instructing your brothers and sisters how in the Divine Service Christ Himself is present in flesh and blood, opening heaven to us each week, letting down Jacob’s ladder into this Nazareth called Joliet, where people wonder if there is anything good. You can say, Yes, Jesus visits Joliet; He visits us at 8 am and 10:45 each week. He speaks to us His good news that raises us up from sin and despair; He renews our souls with His crucified flesh and blood, and as He does so He brings with Him the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
And by that witness the church will be edified and perhaps visitors will come and say, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Or at least if He isn’t, I am convinced that the people who care for the altar believe that He is.”
May God bless you and strengthen you, then, in your holy work this year, as you continue to make the sanctuary a place where we are proud to invite people to “come and see” our Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
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
20th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 11, 2015
“God’s Thoughts—Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer”
“Seek the Lord while He may be found;
Call upon Him while He is near;
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him,
And to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” Is. 55:6-7
From these verses you can see why it is so difficult for the wicked man to return to the Lord. “Let the wicked forsake his way.” That means that a sinner must give up the course he is on; he must turn and walk on a new road, the way of righteousness. Instead of lying he must learn to tell the truth; instead of hatred and anger he must learn love and forgiveness; instead of cheating and stealing he must learn to give. Instead of seeking his own good and honor he must learn to seek the glory and honor of God and the good of his neighbor. It’s hard for the wicked to forsake his way and walk in the way of the Lord. Even if it was just a matter of changing his outward behavior it would be hard.
But it isn’t just a matter of changing behavior. The Holy Spirit goes further: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.” To return to the Lord, the wicked person not only has to forsake his way of life, but his thinking. He has to have a new mind. The mind and heart of the wicked is the source of his evil manner of living, because the wicked man does not seek the glory and honor of God but his own self. He seeks his own happiness and pleasure and not the glory of God and the well-being of his neighbor. That is what God saw about human beings a long time ago, before He flooded the earth to destroy wicked men: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5)
The description of the wicked man’s thinking strikes home with you, doesn’t it? The wicked man thinks about himself—how he can be happy and have what he wants—and not about the glory of God or our neighbor’s needs. Does that mean you are wicked and unrighteous if you are self-seeking? Yes. It means that you have an unrighteous and wicked nature. You must forsake that nature if you want to be saved.
But who can forsake his own nature? Who can change his way of thinking, so that he goes from seeking himself to seeking the glory of God and the good of his neighbor? People spend millions on therapists trying to get help to change their thinking in earthly things, but we are supposed to forsake our selfish way of thinking and become concerned only with glorifying God? How are we supposed to do that?
It is impossible. It is like asking the dead to raise themselves or asking the leopard to change his spots (Jeremiah 13:23). That’s why Jesus, when His disciples asked Him, “Who then can be saved?” said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27) God must miraculously “change our minds”; He must give us the miraculous gift of repentance, so that we become like little children, forsake our thoughts, and “trust in the Lord with all (our) hearts, and do not lean on (our) own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
How does God do that?
Have you ever noticed that in seeking our own happiness first we seldom become happy? And even when we do find happiness it only lasts as long as circumstances favor us. When we put our trust in earthly things and seek our happiness in them, our happiness vanishes as soon as the earthly things are taken away, whether those things are wealth, honor, health, or love. Earthly things can’t satisfy us and give our souls what they really need. So God asks us, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (Is. 55:2) Our fallen minds think that we will be satisfied if we could just have one more thing, and so we work to get that one thing more. But we remain unsatisfied, empty.
“Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (verse 2). We find what satisfies, what enables us to forsake our futile, self-seeking thoughts, in “listening diligently” to the Lord. The words of the Bible, of Holy Scripture, are not the thoughts of men but the thoughts of God. They are the thoughts of the eternal God, the creator of heaven and earth. So they are higher than our thoughts, as the heavens are higher than the earth.
In His Word God makes an everlasting covenant with us. When we follow the thoughts of our unrighteous hearts, there is nothing sure, certain, or everlasting about our happiness. Everything is uncertain and temporary. “If I perform well enough I will get what I want, or at least some of what I want,” we think. But in His Word God is freely pledging His steadfast, sure love forever. He promised David that unchanging love despite David’s sins. He promised that one of David’s offspring would reign as king forever and ever, and that David’s royal line would be established forever. God would not take away the kingship from David and his descendants because of their sin, like He did Sau. His love toward David would be steadfast and sure forever. That same steadfast love God promises to us in His Word.
He fulfilled His promise to David when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb. He sent Jesus to reign on David’s throne forever. Jesus didn’t come as an earthly lord and king but as King and Lord over sin, death, and the devil for us. He came and atoned for David’s sin by His suffering and dying. He won God’s steadfast, sure, and unchanging love for David because He atoned for David’s sin. And what Jesus did for David He did for you. He atoned for your self-seeking and your love of yourself more than God. As a result God’s unchanging, unwavering, certain love is for you as it was for David.
This is the thought of God’s heart that He makes known to us in the Scriptures and the preaching of the Word. By revealing this thought of His heart to us He enables us to forsake our own thoughts and return to Him. Through communicating His thoughts to us He “renews our minds” (Romans 12:2) so that we forsake our self-seeking, sinful thoughts and “return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on us, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. Our thoughts are self-seeking by nature and our ways are crooked as we go through the world trying to make things go the way we want. God’s ways are holy and pure, with no unrighteousness in them. His thoughts are not lies and self-seeking but truth and righteousness. And yet God plans not for our just punishment, but for our pardon. He bears the penalty for our self-seeking Himself, atoning for our sins through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death.
“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that He may have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” This is why the first two things in our fall series after Christ are the Divine Service and Scripture. In the Divine Service we receive God’s Word. He puts His thoughts into our ears. He provides the bread and wine that satisfy us and make our souls live—the body and blood of Jesus. Receiving His Word and Sacrament in faith, we forsake our own thoughts and return to the Lord, who pardons us and delights us with rich food. In reading the Scripture with our families and in private we practice “listening diligently” to God that we may eat what satisfies.
Our hearts are by nature self-seeking and wicked, but we receive the Lord’s thoughts, the mind of Christ, in the Divine Service and in study of the Scriptures. There He reveals His thoughts toward us—to give us steadfast, sure love through His Son’s suffering in our place. If only we listened diligently to the Lord! If only the majority of the members of St. Peter came to the Divine Service not once every couple of months or every other week, but every time the Lord gathers us! If only those who were here every week also diligently listened to the Lord when the Scriptures are opened in Bible Class! If only those who came to Bible Class were opening the Scriptures every day in their homes, with their families and alone! Why do I wish that? So we can be extra-holy, self-righteous people? No, but because in the Word which is given in the Divine Service and in the Scriptures the Lord promises to satisfy our souls and renew our minds. He promises to renew our minds there, and where individually our minds are renewed, the Church is renewed. Then we would not only find satisfaction for ourselves, but others would come to us to receive the Lord’s thoughts.
“Come, everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters,
And he who has no money,
Come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.”
Let everyone who is hungry and thirsty at St. Peter come to the Divine Service, open the Scriptures together and at home, and diligently listen to God in His Word. He will not fail to satisfy your hunger and thirst.
Soli Deo Gloria
The Martyrdom of John the Baptist (observed)—Altar Guild Service
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Mark 6:14-29
August 27, 2015
“Witnesses of Divine Love”
“For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” (Mark 6:18) Well, isn’t that what you get when you tell people they can’t be married? You don’t make friends that way. If it was today, Herod and Herodias would say, “We love each other,” and that would end the discussion. But God’s Law doesn’t simply ask if you love each other. It says, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:6) So-called love and passion do not make a marriage lawful.
Who loves Herod? Is it Herodias, who loves him so much she will kill anyone who gets between them? Or is it John, who speaks unpleasant words to Herod, tells him his life’s choices, his choice of a soul-mate, is wrong? John loves Herod. He loves Herod so much he goes to prison for the good of Herod’s soul. He loves him so much that they cut off John’s head and serve it to Herod on a platter.
John loved Herod. He was a witness of the Lord’s love for the sinful. He loved Herod so much that he risked his life calling him to repentance. He could have easily kept his mouth shut and said nothing to Herod about his unlawful marriage, but then he would have been unfaithful to God’s call on him to be a preacher and prophet. But instead he loved Herod and sought his soul’s salvation. In doing this he witnessed to the Lord’s love of the sinful. Despite the Lord’s anger against sinners for their disobedience, He eagerly seeks their salvation. He desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his iniquity and live (Ezekiel 18). He prophesied through Ezekiel: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so I will seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12) The Lord seeks sinners to reclaim them, even though it costs the lives of His saints.
John the Baptist is an example to us. We remember the saints because in them we see examples of a holy life. They encourage us to walk in the paths they have already walked—in the footsteps of Christ. God also has called us to be witnesses of His love for sinners. We are also to show by our lives, and, if God wills, by our deaths, how God loves and seeks lost sinners. We are not to be concerned about how much it will cost us. We are obligated to love them as our own selves and to seek their good as if it were our own.
How would you fare if you were called upon to preach repentance to Herod and Herodias? Would you be afraid? Would you look for excuses not to do it? We are called to proclaim God’s law and His Gospel to our neighbors as our calling permits. If you are not a preacher it is not through public preaching but through private counsel and admonishment. But often we fail to do it not because we are afraid for our lives but simply because we are afraid to offend people! Even in the obligation to bear witness to the love of God for sinners we see our sin.
Thanks be to God, then, for the Divine Service that we celebrate each Lord’s Day! Because in the Divine Service the Lord bears witness to His divine love for the sinful, even sinners like us who fail to reflect that love. The Lord bears witness in the Divine Service to His own love, and we also remember and proclaim His love.
The love of God for sinners is not sentimental. When John loved Herod, it didn’t take the form of syrupy-sweet talk or pats on the back. It took the form of a rebuke. It took the form of sticking to that rebuke even when Herod imprisoned him and cut off his head. And the love God proclaims for sinners is also not sentimental. It also takes the form of a death. “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.” (John 3:16) That means not just that God loved the world so much that He gave His Son, but that He loved the world in this way, by giving His Son to us to be rejected, falsely accused, torn with whips, mocked, spit on, and then pierced with nails driven into the wood of the cross. God so loved the world that His Son, through whom all things were made, was crucified and hung dead on the tree.
It is because God loved the world in that way that we have peace with God, though we do not love in that way, to that degree. God so loved the world and the sinners of the world that He sent His Son not only to call us to repentance for our lawlessness but to shed His blood to make atonement for our lawlessness.
It is not a sweet and sentimental love that God has for us. It is a love that is keenly aware of what human beings are after the fall of Adam—the extent of our rebellion and hatred against God. His love has sounded that out and taken it in and atoned for it. God doesn’t love us because we are sweet and good and somehow deserving of His love. He loves us despite the fact that we deserve nothing but His anger. He has taken that anger upon Himself for us on the cross.
In the Divine Service God publishes this love with which He has loved sinners. He makes it public through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacrament of the Altar. The whole Divine Service is a public proclamation of God’s love for sinners which He showed in the death of His Son. God proclaims it through the reading of the Word, the preaching, and the Sacrament. We also remember and proclaim God’s love in Christ’s death as we hear and confess the Word, as we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians, “you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” (1 Cor. 11:26)
What does the Altar Guild do? Not just clean and iron and adorn. Not just that. The Altar Guild is helping in the public proclamation of Christ’s death. That is holy, isn’t it? That is sacred. People think the public proclamation of God’s love is the pastor’s job, and it is—I preach and administer the sacraments. Through those things God gives the Holy Spirit, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life to sinners. But the Altar Guild assists in proclaiming Christ. You set out the elements that become Christ’s body and blood. You help to reverently dispose of those elements that remain after the Supper is over. You clean the vessels that have held Jesus’ body and blood—the chalice, the paten, the individual cups, the purificators. You adorn the house in which Christ’s death is proclaimed. In all these things you are helping to bear witness to Christ’s death.
This is a sacred and holy responsibility. And how you carry it out matters. In the Divine Service Jesus testifies to His love for sinners which was shown in His death on the cross for us. But we also remember and proclaim His death and the shedding of His blood. It’s easy for the focus of the service to drift from that central proclamation of Christ crucified. Sermons can easily become moral lectures or a thousand other things besides proclaiming Christ dead on the cross for our sins. And the people’s focus in the service can shift. People can easily turn their attention from God’s unsentimental love for us in the death of Jesus to any number of other distractions, from patriotism and love of God and country, to family and the love of hearth and home.
The Altar Guild helps bear witness to Christ crucified. When you do inconvenient things like cleaning the individual cups and pouring out the water that is mixed with the sacred elements reverently on the earth, you bear witness that Jesus’ body and blood really are in the elements of the Lord’s Supper and that we really do commune in His flesh and blood. When you go around the chancel and altar with special reverence, you bear witness that Christ really is in this place, and that He is here to distribute the salvation won by His death. When you put special care into the arrangement of the robes and the paraments and the cleaning of the chancel, you testify to Jesus’ death. Because Jesus came to earth because we had transgressed God’s law and were under His wrath. He didn’t come to earth to do away with God’s holiness, but to atone for our unholiness. Therefore in the Divine Service the tone should be that we are in the presence of a holy God. We are there safely because He has so loved us as to give His Son into death for us. When the Altar Guild carries out their work in such a spirit, both of fear and reverence and also thankfulness for the great love shown us, you help your brothers and sisters in the congregation to hear and recognize His love.
God’s love is not the love of an uncle, who smiles indulgently at the indiscretions of his nieces and nephews. It is Divine love. God gave up none of His holiness in being reconciled to sinners like us. He perfectly upheld His holiness and righteousness in punishing sin. But in Divine mercy and love He punished our sins in Jesus. Now there is no more wrath for us, but we are accepted in Christ and may draw near to God through Him. This is what we remember and proclaim in the Divine Service—God’s love in the death of Christ. May God help us to show and witness that love by our reverence in handling the sacred linens and vessels. May He grant that our congregation may be established in the love of God shown in the death of Christ and follow the example of John the Baptist in fearlessly seeking the salvation of lost sinners!
Soli Deo Gloria
13th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 10:22-37; Galatians 3:15-22
September 14, 2014
“Writing the Promise in our Hearts: Divine Service, Scripture, Prayer”
You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, not written with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts. 2 Cor. 3:3
Jesus is writing a letter on our hearts.
What is the letter about? It’s a promise.
A promise of salvation.
Of salvation from sin and its dreadful curse—death and hell.
How the world needs to read this letter that Jesus writes on our hearts!
Because the world only knows one way out of the curse of sin. That is to pursue it by works, by law.
But there is no loophole in the law of God wide enough for us to squeeze through. Not even an expert in the law can find a way. The judge can’t be fooled.
The lawyer asks, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says, “You know the answer to that question. What does the law say?”
Well, it says You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Right, says Jesus. Do that, and you will live.
Well, now, but who is my neighbor? Do I have to love just my close relatives as myself? Or all of my countrymen?
No, not just your relatives, says Jesus. Not just your friends. Not just your countrymen. But love sees an enemy in misery, suffering and doesn’t stop to ask, “Do I need to help him?” Love just loves. It takes the enemy, shreds its clothes to bandage him, pours its own medicine and balm on his wounds, puts him on its own animal, spends its own money to nurse him back to health. Love is love. It’s not bookkeeping. It’s generous, spendthrift, because it’s rich. Love never fails.
Love like that and you will live.
Isn’t it pretty that Jesus says to love like that?
Not if you’re going to be judged by that law. The lawyer finds no loopholes with Jesus. The door to eternal life through the law has just been shut in our faces.
Because we don’t love like that. We’re out in the cold, or out in the fire and darkness. How often do you really take on the pain and grief of other people as your own? Maybe your children, your siblings, your parents. But as the circle widens the warmth of our love begins to cool. It’s tiring to pour yourself into the bottomless pit of people’s need and misery. We run out of love and life long before people run out of needs. And when it comes to our adversaries, the thought of stoking the fire of love to warm those who take our compassion as weakness and folly—our hearts freeze up completely.
But without that kind of love we are under the curse of God’s law. Death and hell are our lot. Because that, after all, is the way God loves us. Unceasingly, overwhelmingly, gratuitously, not taking account of the cost or our worthiness but only our great need. And then we turn around and withhold love. His great love pours through us like a sieve. It’s wasted on us. We neither love Him nor our poor neighbor in return.
That is the problem for us with God’s law. It’s not that God’s law isn’t beautiful and good. It commands what is beautiful and good—heartfelt, generous love and kindness toward our neighbor. But we don’t have this love in us, and the Law of God does not have the power to create it in us. Paul says in the Epistle reading, If a law had been given that could give life, righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin. The law is not able to give us life so that we love like it commands. It shows us what is beautiful and good, but we are not able to do it.
That’s why Jesus writes His letter in our hearts. It is a letter containing the promise of salvation. It is not a law that commands works of love but a pure promise of salvation. Paul says that God did not give Abraham the promise that He would inherit eternal life by a law but by a promise. He did not tell Abraham what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He freely and unconditionally promised eternal l life to Abraham.
Salvation from sin and everlasting death comes to us in the same way. God does not give it to us by a law, but by a promise. He freely and unconditionally promises eternal life to sinners for the sake of Jesus’ death and merit.
Jesus is the good Samaritan to us. He finds us dead in trespasses and sins. We do not have love. We are dead. Not just half-dead; completely dead. So the Son of God becomes man and lives in love, fulfilling God’s law, meriting eternal life. Then He lays down His meritorious life and its reward so that it will be ours. Like the good Samaritan made bandages out of his own clothes to wrap the wounds of the man who fell among robbers, Jesus gives up His righteousness to clothe us and dies a sinner. He covers us with His wholeness and His perfect love and gives Himself up to taste the wrath of God which belongs to us.
And He promises us eternal life on the basis of what He has done. It is an unconditional promise of eternal life, just as the Samaritan unconditionally nursed the man who was beaten half to death to life.
This is the promise that God writes about in the letter He writes on our hearts. It is not a tale about our love, how we have sacrificed ourselves for God or other people and made ourselves worthy of heaven. What God writes on our hearts is the promise of salvation through His Son, who unconditionally died for our sins on the cross.
How does God write this promise on our hearts? In the Divine Service and through Holy Scripture.
We need Him to write this promise on our hearts. Otherwise we remain like the lawyer, searching around desperately for a way to be justified by the law. But when we are under the law, we do not find life; only death. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” When we are under the law, we are under a covenant that produces death. It commands us to love freely and spontaneously and generously without asking who we should love or how much. And we can’t do it. We remain locked up and condemned by the law’s curse.
And that is the only way we know apart from God writing the free promise of salvation through His Son on our hearts.
But when God proclaims His promise of the free forgiveness of sins for Jesus’ sake, He is writing this promise in our hearts and making them a joyful letter that contains the promise of salvation. That’s why if you want to grow as a Christian and if the Church is going to grow spiritually it only happens through the Divine Service and the Scripture.
In the Divine Service God proclaims through the preacher that Jesus’ holy life of love is for you . He writes that promise on your heart by His Spirit. He does it by proclaiming Christ’s righteousness and death for you in the sermon. He does it by loosing you of your sins in the absolution.
Then He proclaims that Christ’s death is for you at the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” You come and eat and drink the very body and blood that Jesus gave and shed on Calvary to free and cleanse you of sin and its curse.
These are the ways the Spirit writes the promise of salvation on your hearts. You become a living letter testifying to the promise of God that He has freely pardoned the world of its sins in the death of His Son.
As you read the Scripture during the week, the Holy Spirit continues this work of writing on you. His writing is living writing—the very life-giving breath of God. It not only inscribes the letters of the promise on your heart, but it is living writing that frees you from the old writing of the law and its bondage to death. You begin to spontaneously love your neighbor as the law commands, like the good Samaritan.
Then after God writes on us in the Divine Service and through the Scripture, we pray. We ask God to keep writing. We take His promise which He has put in our hearts and we use it to call upon God to fulfill His promise, to keep writing on us so that the living letters in which He writes on us will become more clear and distinct to the world.
Often Christians try to get by with a minimum of Divine Service, Scripture, and prayer. They don’t realize that the promise of God in Christ, which He writes on our hearts, is our life. We have no life at all apart from that promise that our sins are forgiven because of the blood of Jesus. In that promise stands all our life. Without it we are dead, condemned by the law.
If we lack anything—good works, faith, assurance of salvation, confidence in the face of death, joy, peace, self-control—these things only come to us in the Scriptures and the Divine Service. And where the promise of God in Christ is received, prayer rushes forth and cries out that the Lord would continue to write His promise on our hearts and bring it to its fulfillment in eternal life.
Yes, the unconditional promise of salvation in Christ is our only life. In the Divine Service and Scripture God is writing this promise on our hearts for us and for the world. Nowhere else do we get life, forgiveness of sins, salvation. In no other way than through the Divine Service, Scripture, and prayer, do our lives become living letters in which people can read the promise of salvation in Christ.
St. Peter Lutheran Church [chapel]
Revelation 6:9-11, Romans 6:1-5, St. Mark 6:14-29
August 29, 2013
“This is the feast of victory for our God, Alleluia!”
We didn’t sing “This is the Feast of Victory for our God” today. We sang, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”
Those are both heaven’s songs. “This is the Feast” is based on Revelation chapter five. There John sees a vision of the divine service in heaven. It is liturgical. First the 24 elders, who signify the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament and the 12 apostles of the new, sing a new song, saying
Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth. Rev. 5:9-10
That’s kind of like the pastor’s part in our divine service on earth. Except the 24 elders are not just the apostles and the 12 sons of Israel, nor just pastors. But they are the whole Christian Church, because Jesus did not make just the apostles priests and kings, or just the clergy, but all Christians are baptized into Christ and share in His priesthood and His royal reign.
Next comes what would probably be the choir’s response. The choir here, like our choir, summons the congregation to worship, or leads them. But the choir here up in the heavenly choir loft, or rather gathered around the throne of God and the 24 elders is a choir of angels: numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Rev. 5:11-12
Then finally in the eternal and heavenly divine service the whole congregation responds together. But in the vision, the whole congregation does not consist of people, or at least not only people. No, the congregation that sings is every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them. And this congregation sings
To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! Rev. 5:13
And then the four living creatures say Amen. And all the elders fall on their faces in worship before Jesus who sits on the throne.
Like I said, we didn’t sing this. We sang the other one, which is also a song of heaven. “Glory to God in the highest”—the song of the angels when the Son of God was born a man and laid in a manger for us (Luke 2). It is also the song of the crowd waving palms as Jesus our Lord and God rode to Jerusalem; the crowd sings, “Hosanna! (Matthew 21) Peace in heaven and glory in the highest (Luke 19).” In the Gloria in Excelsis the angel’s Christmas song and the crowd’s Palm Sunday song are woven together.
Either one works for the Divine Service. I prefer the older one, the Gloria. But they are both having us sing the songs of the Divine Service in heaven.
So either we are like that crow in Aesop’s fable that puts on peacock feathers, and we’re pretending like we can slip into the heavenly divine service unnoticed. Or we really have a right to sing the words that the angels and God’s holy people sing as they stand around the throne of the Holy One.