Holy Easter Day
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Mark 16:1-8 (1 Cor. 5:6-8)
April 16, 2017
He is Not Here
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Jesus is risen from the dead!
During the weeks of Lent we have seen Jesus our Lord without form or comeliness, with nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He has been humiliated, cursed by man and God. Crowned with thorns, beaten and bruised, spit upon, rejected, pierced by nail and spear, forsaken by God, embalmed and entombed.
But now, here on Easter morning in the church, we see splendor. Our women have adorned and beautified the sanctuary and the altar just as Mary Magdalene and the two others went to honor and care for His body. Beautiful easter lilies cover the altar. The processional cross which was veiled last week, just as Jesus’ face was hidden under bruises, spit, and blood—now it is uncovered. We see Jesus on it, ascending in majesty.
But in the Gospel reading we see no Jesus.
We see through the eyes of the three women who have come at the break of day on the first day of the week to anoint the corpse of Jesus. They are worrying as they walk. “Who will roll away the stone from the tomb?”
But as they walk past the place where Jesus was crucified on Friday, where they saw Him die, into the garden nearby that held the tomb where they laid Him, they look up and see: the stone is already rolled away. Someone has opened Jesus’ tomb. Was it in the night? Did grave robbers come? But how would they have gotten past the guards that were placed there?
Then entering the tomb, the dark cave cut out of the rock, they see that Jesus’ body is gone. No Jesus! Instead there is a young man sitting there on the right side, dressed in a white robe.
You can imagine why they were startled!
The young man begins to speak to them. “Don’t be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus, the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen. He is not here. Look and see the place where they laid Him.”
It is empty. The women see, and we see. Jesus is not lying there like He should be.
“Go,” the young man tells them. “Say to His disciples, and to Peter, that He is going ahead of you all to Galilee. You will see Him there, just like He told you.”
So we are left this morning smelling the lilies, seeing the gold on the altar, but not seeing Jesus. We are not shown the glory that replaces the shame of His crucifixion. We don’t see the power that replaces His former weakness, the life that replaces the death that claimed Him. We do not see. We only hear, “He is not here. He has risen.”
Even if we read a passage from one of the Gospels where Jesus appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, we would be hearing, not seeing. We would not see Him alive with our own eyes. We would not see His majesty, power, His glory that He now has in place of the weakness and shame in which we saw Him die.
So let us talk about what we don’t see.
The women came by the place Jesus was crucified, Golgotha, on their way to Jesus’ tomb. They had to walk by “the place of a skull.” You might easily see why they would want to avoid that place, not only because of its grim name, but because of the suffering inflicted on them there as they watched their hope die. But they could not avoid it, just like we cannot avoid death. The tomb in which Jesus was buried was there in a garden nearby.
But at this very place named after the symbol of death, the place of a skull, death has been struck a mortal blow. We do not see Jesus. The women fully expected to see Him and weep when they saw Him. They expected to see His body lying still and cold beneath linen cloths. They do not find Him. Instead they find a messenger waiting for them to proclaim that He has come forth from death.
It’s true; but instead of telling them Himself, Jesus sends a messenger, an angel to announce it. That is how Jesus does it now too. A messenger tells you. A messenger in a white robe is there, not a heavenly being, but a pastor—at the grave of your loved ones, at the birth of your children into this world of death, in the middle of the joy of this life where, nonetheless, like the ancient hymn says:
In the midst of life we are in death:
From whom can we seek help?
From you alone, O Lord,
Who by our sins are justly angered.
Holy God, Holy and Mighty,
Holy and Merciful Savior,
Leave us not in the bitterness of eternal death.
Jesus is not there in the tomb. He is not here either, not visibly, like He was before. The reason there is a messenger telling you, and not Jesus Himself, is because Jesus is no longer in sin and death, in humiliation and weakness. And so He sends a messenger.
He is risen, and so He does not do what He did before. Before this He lived in this world that is filled with graves and tombs. One day, your grave will add to the number. This is the world that Jesus came to live in with us. He was one of us in every way, except without sin. And He came in our appearance, not in the glory which was His, which a man cannot see and live. He looked like us—not glorious, but earthly, not above pain, weakness, and humiliation, but subject to it. He lived here and carried out the task of a preacher. He looked like a preacher, like all the ones who have stood before you in white robes; some you liked, some you didn’t, some were talented, some less so. But all of them were of the dust, of the earth. Jesus looked just like that. He went to town after town and preached that the Kingdom of God had come upon them. Some believed Him; most were only interested in His miracles. Many not only rejected His message but hated Him. And finally they succeeded in putting Him to death.
Jesus doesn’t do this anymore. Before He came in the form of a servant. Though He was God in the flesh, He laid aside the glory of God, which was His from eternity. He came in our image and likeness, shared our hunger, thirst, weariness, weakness, our pain. He shared our obligation to obey God’s Law. He was subject to death even though, unlike us, He had not earned death. He preached and people were able to reject Him, turn away and laugh, or turn toward Him with clenched teeth and stones in their hands.
This can’t happen anymore. Jesus can’t die anymore, or suffer anymore. He cannot be rejected in His own person. He no longer shares our weakness. He isn’t subject to death. He still allows people to reject Him, but only as they reject His preaching through the ones He sends. But He will not share our mortal life, our humiliations, our guilt and our death anymore. When He wants to speak with us, He sends messengers in our image and likeness. He does not come Himself now with the glory that a man may not see and live.
Why does Jesus no longer share this life and speak to us visibly? He has done it already, and it is finished.
He shared our image and likeness, and the suffering, death and weakness that covers us because He came to be the true Passover lamb, who was slain so that God’s judgment would pass over us, so that we would go free from His judgment, from death and hell. Now He has been exalted, raised up to the highest place, to sit on the throne of God in His flesh and blood. He reigns over death, over hell, over all things for us, binding them through the message of His resurrection. He won’t and can’t dwell among us in lowliness, in the form of a servant who bears the sin of the world, because it can’t be done again. It is already done. He has already borne that image to its end—to the cross and the grave.
When Jesus was humiliated, cursed, and crucified, when He died and was buried, God was striking and plaguing Him for our sins, for your sins. He suffocated and burned in the torment that belongs to us for eternity, which we have earned from the time we were conceived in sin. He hung naked before this anger of God against us on the cross. He had no defense against it; no excuses in His mouth. He was silent like a lamb before its shearers and did not open His mouth. He had no power to push this burning anger away, because He had laid His divine power aside to become like us. He had laid aside His innocence by which He could have been scared God’s wrath and plunged Himself into the flood of our transgressions. The guilty conscience of the whole world was upon Him. He sank in the depths of sin where there is no foothold, no ground on which to stand and cry out to God for help, only the full awareness that we have deserved God to cast us away. On the cross, Jesus was thrown into the depths of this sea, like Pharaoh was thrown into the depths of the Red Sea, like the whole world outside of the ark sank in the deeps of God’s flood. He did not say, “Father, I did nothing wrong. Take me down from the cross!” He had taken our wrongs as His own.
And the Father punished those wrongs with agony of soul and body until He gave up His Spirit, died and was buried.
So look now. Jesus is not here in this grave any longer. We cannot see Him, because He has entered His glory. We see only a young man in a robe sitting in the empty tomb, waiting for us with a message. When we enter the young man looks up and says, “He has risen.”
And because you are not out of your mind with fright like the women that morning, you can reflect on the message that is spoken to you, what it means to you.
Jesus is free. Every week you say: I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…who was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures.
What does that mean for you, that Christ rose again, and is not seen in the tomb, not seen walking among us in our lowly appearance? What does the message of the messenger mean for you, “He has risen?”
It means that He has been released from the punishment He received from His Father for your sins. He has been released from the sentence of death, and therefore from the grave, the sentence He received because He offered Himself to bear our sin.
The Father did not release Jesus until He had tasted death. Jesus had prayed, “Take this cup from Me.” The Father did not; He had to be crucified and forsaken by God. He had to die and be buried. It was clear. The Father would not let Jesus go until He had paid the full measure of our debt.
But now Jesus is free. In releasing Jesus from the chains of death, the Father is making a declaration. The debt Jesus went to Golgotha to pay is now paid in full. Jesus is released from death. The debt is paid.
Your debt is paid. The Father releases you with Jesus from the guilt of sin, from His wrath against you, from the grave, from the fire of hell.
Our sins are no longer there to hold Jesus chained in death. If they were still there, Jesus would still be in the tomb. Or Jesus would still be among us as He was with His disciples, in the form of a slave. He would still be serving us as our slave, with His glory put aside, and our guilt and lowliness and death still upon Him.
But He is not there in the tomb. He is free. And so are you. Unless you despise this. Unless you refuse to believe it.
Victory has been won over the powers that ruled us and kept us chained; the old serpent has been crushed under the heel of the virgin’s Son. The empty tomb of Jesus is the battlefield from which the enemy has been put to flight.
It is the courtroom, now empty after it has been adjourned, where the Father tried you together with all people, and announced His verdict: Not guilty. Or: “I find the world to be righteous and just. Set them free.”
It is the prison cell in which all people were held as condemned criminals, awaiting the order that would carry out their sentence. But now, no one is there. There is only a man in a white robe saying, “You are all free.” He doesn’t say those words, of course. He says, “He has risen.”
Paul says the same thing to the Church at Corinth. “You really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The Corinthian Church was doing some very impure things. A man married his father’s wife; and the Corinthians, instead of calling this man to repentance, bragged about how he had done this. Yet Paul says, You really are unleavened, not permeated with the yeast of wickedness, but pure. The reason is because the Passover Lamb that bears our sins has died and blotted them out.
At Passover, Jews were required by God to take all the yeast out of their houses before the Passover lamb was slain.
Even today, observant Jews do this. They search the house for any place there might be yeast, where crumbs of bread might have fallen. They scrape out the dark places under the cupboards and the oven to get rid of every last bit of yeast that might leaven the unleavened bread they eat during Passover.
Christians also do this by daily repentance; we “cleanse out the old leaven” of the sinful nature in which we were conceived. But trying to purge out your sins is not enough to cleanse us, as anyone who has tried it knows very well.
God must put away our sins.
And He has done it through the blood of Jesus. Jesus has cleansed the old evil leaven of our sinful natures out of us. He has buried it. God has forgiven it, which means, God has released us from it. Our sin no longer stands before Him. He does not count it, or impute it. This is what we mean when we say that God “justifies us.” It means He counts us righteous for the sake of Christ. He counts Jesus holy obedience and righteousness to us, just as truly as He imputed our guilt to His Son. This teaching is the central teaching of the Christian faith. It is, according to our Lutheran Confessions, the article of the faith “on which the Church stands or falls.” This is what the Reformation that began 500 years ago was about. Whoever has this teaching and believes it is righteous before God and saved from hell, even though he remains a sinner. Where this teaching is lost, human beings are lost. Because there is no other way that human beings can be righteous before God than for Christ’s sake.
This cleansing that happened by Jesus’ death and resurrection also becomes effective in you. We sang about it in Luther’s hymn:
Then let us feast this Easter day
On Christ, the bread of heaven.
The Word of Grace has purged away
The old and evil leaven.
Christ purged human beings of sin before God; but the purging away of sin within us happens through the Word of the messenger of Jesus. Through that word, God works faith that Jesus has purified us. And God counts that faith as righteousness before Him; and at the same time, He gives the gift of His Spirit, who each day purges away the sin that remains in us, so that it no longer works through the whole lump of our bodies, families, congregations, but goes into remission.
The angel said, “Christ is risen.” Go tell His disciples and Peter.
But to you the Word comes differently. It says, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It says, “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I forgive you all your sins.”
When the pastor says these words, he is just proclaiming the same word as the angel; he is announcing what God has done for you and to you in raising Jesus from the dead. He is saying, “God has released you, together with the whole world, from your guilt. God has justified you.”
God has not done this only for believers, and this message is not to be proclaimed only to those who already believe and are righteous. It is to be proclaimed to the unrighteous who grieve because of their sins. It is to be proclaimed also to Christians who have fallen from Jesus. “Go tell His disciples and Peter,” says the angel. Peter had denied he knew Jesus; his own voice had condemned him. He had said, “I am not a disciple of Jesus.” You may be here this morning and have done the same thing, by your words or actions. You may have said, “I am not Jesus’ disciple” by willfully doing what you know to be sinful. And you may be thinking, “Now that I have denied Jesus and bathed in the mud, and made myself unclean with Jesus’ name on me, how can I become pure and clean again? How can I undo my falling away?” You may not be thinking this, and yet you may be one who should think this!
You cannot undo the shame of turning away from Jesus, and allowing yourself to be filled again with the leaven of malice and evil. But the angel specifically says, “Tell Jesus’ disciples, and Peter.”
Perhaps Jesus would have the whole congregation of St. Peter hear these words as His Word to this St. Peter.
Tell Peter: “He is risen. God has justified Him. God has let these sins go; they are paid for, the bonds of those sins are broken. The guilt is removed. The shame wiped away.”
Let us believe the word of whatever angel comes to you from Jesus with this message, for it is Jesus who sends the message to all who are bound by the chains of sin and hell.
Let us rejoice that we no longer see Jesus bearing our weakness. That means our sins have been removed forever, once and for all.
And if we grieve over the weakness we still bear, let us receive Jesus’ pledge that we share, even now, in His glory, as our glorious, risen Savior gives us the foretaste of our resurrection. Let us eat His body and drink His blood which have purged away the old, evil leaven from us. See, His blood now marks our door, faith points to it. Death passes oer. And Satan cannot harm us. Alleluia!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Good Friday—Chief Service (1 PM)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 19:28-30, 34 (John 18-19, Is. 52:13-53:12, 2 Cor. 5:14-21)
April 14, 2017
Why is this Friday “Good”?
My son asked me—last Sunday, I think it was: “Why is it called ‘Good Friday’? It doesn’t seem good.” We sit here in a church stripped bare, in darkness, hearing the agony of our Lord Jesus read out loud, hearing the reproaches of God against us a little on from now, praying prayers asking God for mercy. It indeed does not seem good. When we look at the mockery of Jesus, think of the shame and wounds He endured, and consider also that God looked with anger and wrath on His Son as well, because He was carrying the sin of the world, like the scapegoat in the Levitical Law—it is not good. The sin we were born in, the sins we have committed knowingly and unknowingly, the sin we often excuse, tolerate, continue in and think we can repent later—not good. Here we see it unmasked for what it is: sin brings death. Sin brings God’s anger and punishment. God will not leave sin unpunished.
The word “good” in Good Friday probably originally meant something different than we think when we hear it. It probably meant something like “holy” or “godly.”
Yet it is right to think of Good Friday as being “good” in the way we normally use the word. Good Friday is good because on Good Friday (together with Easter) Jesus fulfilled or “finished” the Gospel, the “Good News.” He finished the message that His apostles would later proclaim, and that the Reformation began to proclaim again after it was lost. He finished the good news of our justification before God, our being accounted righteous, as Isaiah the prophet put it, our being “released from sin.”
On this day Jesus “finished” the content of the Gospel.
- It is recognized as good news only by helpless, condemned sinners, terrified by God’s Law;
- But to them it is very good, because it proclaims that Jesus finished our sin and God’s wrath on the cross, and that through His Work alone, received by faith, we are accounted righteous, or justified.
The world doesn’t receive the preaching of Jesus’ suffering and death as good news. There are plenty of people who understand intellectually what we preach, that Jesus suffered for our sins so that we might not be condemned—as St. Paul writes: For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew know sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:17). There are plenty of people who understand this with their minds. Some—many even—profess to believe this. Yet their faith goes no deeper than their mind and intellect; it is not a faith worked by the Holy Spirit, giving salvation, on which a person stakes his life and eternity.
Such a person doesn’t really regard the death of Jesus as good news. The suffering and death of Jesus, after all, doesn’t seem like anything to rejoice in. A man dying in shame and mockery a horrible death seems weak and useless to the world, not joyful, happy news.
The agony of Jesus, the death of Jesus, is good news, whether a person realizes it or not. But most people do not. There are many people who come to church occasionally who hear the death of Jesus proclaimed, but it appears to make no impression on them. It does not lead them to renounce their sins, hear God’s Word more frequently, be baptized, live a life that is by faith in the One who died for them. Even on those who regularly come to hear the Word of Christ preached and receive His body and blood, there are many for whom it does not appear to be particularly good news.
That’s because although it is good news for all people, although it is the best news there is—it is only recognized as good news by the people the Bible refers to as “the poor”. It is recognized as good news by people who have been brought to a knowledge of sin, who as a result are terrified and afflicted.
A person comes to this knowledge through the Law of God. The more we look into God’s Law, or hear it, the more we become conscious of our guilt before God, and the seriousness of His anger against those who disobey His Law. This is one of the reasons why you are so often encouraged and exhorted to learn the Small Catechism by heart and to read the Bible. When you do, the Holy Spirit will often convict you of your sin before God. You don’t get very far in the Bible before God starts commanding things and you realize you haven’t done them. You can’t read the Bible very long before you are confronted with an example of God threatening or punishing sinners, and realizing that you are guilty of the same sins that caused Him to send the flood, or drown Pharaoh, or reject Saul. The words of Psalm 5 are an example: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not sojourn with You. The boastful may not stand before Your eyes; You hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors bloodthirsty and deceitful men. (v. 4-6) Is there anyone here today who has never spoken lies?
Those who are brought to a knowledge of their sin become frightened by words like these; we become conscious of the guilt we bear before God and His anger against us as sinners, and we look for how we can become free from sin. Because we are Lutherans, we learn that we are to take the guilt of our sin to Jesus, who atoned for the sins of the world.
But even as Christians, we find that sin remains with us. Even if we don’t know it from experience, we can look at the example of St. Peter and see just how much evil and weakness remains even in Christ’s disciples. Peter said, “I will die with you,” and couldn’t keep his pledge for a few hours. We are not able to do “our part” to be faithful Christians. We can’t keep ourselves from falling into sin.
In fact, we are not even able to produce the faith that takes hold of Jesus and saves us. The more you see your sin, the more your heart trembles in fear of God, or in anger against Him at putting you in this impossible situation of trying to please Him when you can’t. The more you see yourself fall, the more difficult it becomes in the flesh to believe that God has really forgiven you.
This is a terrible feeling to those who have experienced it. Such a person feels forsaken by God.
But even if a person has not experienced this so intensely, only those who have come to the knowledge of their sin through God’s Law hear the death of Jesus as good news. A person may not have felt God’s wrath in their hearts so intensely, or felt forsaken by God. But all Christians believe testimony of the Word of God, that there is nothing good in them, that born in the sin transmitted by Adam to his descendants, they are by nature spiritually dead, enemies of God. And all Christians know that God is angry at sin and will certainly punish it with suffering in this life, with death, and with eternal torment in hell.
And in the cross and death of Jesus we see this. Jesus was born without sin and never committed sin. The result was that He was immortal. He was not subject to death, and certainly not to God’s anger, certainly not to His condemnation.
Yet today, on Good Friday, we see Jesus die. We hear Him cry that He is forsaken by God. We see how angry God is with our sins, that He would not spare His Son, when His Son was carrying all the sins of the world, but punished Him, turned His face from Him, allowed His Son to die and, while dying, to experience His condemnation and curse.
We also see in the Passion of Jesus that it is not just a human being who is suffering and dying on the cross. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, God of God, light of light. He tells Pilate “my Kingdom is from another place.” And when Pilate hears that Jesus has declared that He is the Son of God, Pilate is afraid. It is fearful to think that not just a man suffers the mockery, the agony, and death of the cross. It shows not only how wicked human beings are, that His own people would reject Him and demand Him to be put to death. It shows how serious our sins are in God’s sight, that He would require nothing less than the suffering of God in the flesh to atone for them.
When the rebellious people of Israel were thirsty in the desert, God caused water to flow out of a rock and quenched their thirst. He refreshed them, even though they were rebellious and unfaithful. But His faithful Son, there is no refreshment. Jesus is given sour wine to drink and no water, which is a picture of how the Father did not turn away His wrath from His Son. He did not relent, but gave Jesus the cup of His wrath, which belonged to us. It had to be drained to the bottom.
All that is very bad news. If you take it to heart you will be troubled and distressed, because you realize that Jesus’ agony is a picture of the agony you will endure in hell unless your sin and guilt is removed.
But how can that happen, when we continue to be sinners?
This is the good news that Jesus finished on Good Friday, the good news of the pure Gospel:
We cannot purge away our sins, not even with the help of the Holy Spirit, so that God will no longer be angry with us.
Our sins must be “put away”. We must be “released” from them. Our sin must be covered, as the 32nd psalm says.
This is why Good Friday is rightly called good, because this is what Jesus does today. He covers our sins and makes us to be accounted righteous, as Isaiah 53 said.
When the stripes are laid open on Jesus’ back by the whip, we are healed, and peace with God is being made for us.
When He is mocked and scorned as a King with a crown of thorns, and a jeering crowd calls for Him to be crucified, God is leading Him like a lamb to be slaughtered for our sins; and Jesus does not open His mouth to protest.
He is being oppressed and afflicted by God; God the Father’s will is to crush Jesus, so that we may not be crushed, but be accounted righteous, be declared not wicked but righteous and without sin.
Jesus is “reconciling the Father to us” as He is nailed to the cross and lifted up to hang there under His curse. He thirsts and is forsaken by God, so that we will not be forsaken, or thirst for God and not have our thirst be quenched. God does not let us thirst because His anger is removed from us. He is reconciled to us and at peace. “The chastisement that brought us peace was upon Him.”
That is why Isaiah says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied, by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Is. 53:11)
Jesus made us to be accounted righteous by God. Not as a fiction, a lie. But really making payment sufficient for God to count our sins to us no longer, so that we are really righteous and just and without sin through faith in Jesus alone.
“It is finished,” says Jesus. What is finished? The atonement for our sins; God’s reconciliation with sinners, the forgiveness of our sins. It is finished. Nothing is to be done but to receive this Word of Jesus and believe that, as great as your sins are, Jesus has paid the sufficient ransom to set you free from them.
Paul says, God committed to us the ministry of reconciliation. He means the ministry of preaching this Gospel. This is why God invented the pastoral office and why He still sends men out to preach His pure Gospel.
It is to bring you good news, so that you may not thirst and get sour wine, so that you may not thirst like the rich man in hell, longing for a drop of water in the flames but never receiving one. Instead you are to receive the water of the Gospel for your thirst. That water does not come from nowhere. It comes from Jesus’ death.
Just as His body was pierced and water and blood poured, so God pours on You His grace. Announces your justification and His reconciliation with you, that He has put all your sins on His Son. Releases you from sin in the absolution. Purifies you in His sight, burying and resurrecting you with Jesus in Baptism.
Giving you His flesh to eat and blood to drink.
This streams to you from Jesus’ death, here and now.
So we call it “Good Friday,” because Jesus finished the good news on this day. Good like God said His creation was very good before the fall. Now God says all who believe in Christ are good like that; spotless, pure, holy, through faith in Jesus alone—a new creation.
6th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 5:20-26 (Romans 6:1-11)
July 3, 2016
“The Righteousness that Stands before God”
In the Old Testament reading today we heard the ten commandments that God gave the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. But where God usually spoke to the people of Israel through Moses, on this occasion His own voice spoke the words of the ten commandments, so that the people might make no mistake that it is God who commands that we have no other gods, that we not take His name in vain, that we honor our father and mother, that we not murder. And the voice in our hearts and minds that judges us when we violate God’s commandments is the echo of the voice of God, which tells us that we have provoked Him to anger and that He will visit our iniquities with His wrath and punishment.
But we human beings have a way of forgetting this voice of God from Mount Sinai and not remembering its thunder. Even when you hear or say the ten commandments regularly, this can happen. Then a person takes away the sharpness of God’s law so that he can be comfortable again and not tremble at God’s judgment. This happened to the Israelites. In Jesus’ day many of them, maybe even most of them, thought they were righteous in the sight of God because they knew there was only one true God and because they knew His commandments. They thought that this belief in one God along with external observance of His commandments made them righteous in His sight.
And so Jesus often preached the Law of God to His people again. In the Gospel reading we heard Him say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And to illustrate what He meant, He explained the fifth commandment to them. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.’” (Matt. 5:21-22)
Jesus was teaching His hearers that the righteousness that you need to stand in the presence of God is a perfect and complete fulfillment of His Law. It is not merely refraining from killing people, for instance, but a righteous man must be free from anger and the desire for revenge. A righteous man in God’s sight loves his neighbor, even his enemies, from the heart. He doesn’t wish him evil; he not only refrains from murdering him but from harming him at all, even with his words. A righteous man doesn’t even have the kinds of thoughts and feelings that would lead to harming a neighbor—he doesn’t become angry with him, much less harbor a grudge or hate him.
And when a person does violate God’s law—even in his heart and emotions, or with his lips—he is a lawbreaker. God is provoked and angry with him. Those sins which we consider unavoidable and therefore small—anger, thoughtless words or words spoken in anger, for instance—bring God’s anger and judgment. We consider them small, but Jesus says that a person who is guilty of them will not be able to enter God’s Kingdom. A person who gets angry and calls someone a fool is liable to the fire of hell, says Jesus.
In saying these things Jesus wanted, and still wants, to strip away the false righteousness we comfort ourselves with and expose us to what we really are by nature before God—guilty sinners, deserving eternal punishment, by no means able to produce the righteousness God requires for salvation. The sad thing in this world is that so many people never face this reality of their guilt and wretchedness before God, and as a result they sleep in their sins, imagining that God is not displeased with them as they drift toward eternal damnation. We think that to proclaim the harsh and terrifying judgment of God’s law is mean and unloving; in actuality it is loveless to withhold it from people who are dead in their sins. Unless they hear it they cannot receive the forgiveness of sins nor can they be freed from the slavery of sin.
But since we are not able to fulfill the Law of God, to produce the righteousness that allows one to enter the kingdom of heaven, what are we supposed to do? The answer is that we would have to despair and be damned, but Jesus and His apostles after Him always proclaimed good new to the poor and desolate people who experienced the terror of God’s law and came to the knowledge of their helplessness in sin. The good news Jesus preached (as most of you know by now) is that God freely gives the righteousness that stands before Him. To all who believe in Jesus Christ, God gives or credits perfect righteousness.
Jesus explained God’s law to those who minimized it to show that it requires the obedience of the whole heart, mind, and will, as well as our words and deeds. Unlike the prophets and those who preached God’s law before Him, however, Jesus actually fulfilled the law that he proclaimed. He didn’t murder; didn’t speak insulting, killing words; He also did not become angry and vengeful toward His enemies. He loved them from His heart. He prayed for them after they had Him murdered and while they stood mocking His death.
Jesus blamelessly fulfilled the law of God so that He deserved to have God judge Him righteous; and yet Jesus did not cling to His own righteousness. Instead, He put it aside and offered Himself to God to carry the sins of the world on His own head, to receive God’s furious, just anger against them. Because Jesus was not merely a man, but also true God, He could do this. If He had been a mere man He could not have, because a life of perfect obedience is simply hat each one of us owes God. But Jesus, true God and man, offered Himself to be judged guilty of our sins and punished for our transgressions.
So Jesus has a two-fold righteousness; He perfectly fulfilled God’s law in His life; then He made atonement for all the world’s sins, and by His agony on the cross and His death He cancelled out our sins.
This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is counted not to the person who strives to obey God—since a person who is still in his sins can’t even begin to submit to God or His law. This two-fold righteousness of Jesus is credited to the one who does not work but trusts God, who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)—to the one who believes the Gospel. The ungodly law-breaker, whose debt before God is so deep that he despairs of ever having a good conscience before Him, who believes in Jesus, the eternal Son of God made man, the Righteous One who was wounded for our transgressions (Isaiah 53: 5)—God counts this man righteous. God justifies the person who brings no works with him but only believes this message. He forgives his sins, and imputes Jesus’ righteousness to him—dealing with him who believes in Jesus as if he had accomplished Jesus’ perfect obedience to the law.
So can you be certain that you have the righteousness that allows you to enter the kingdom of heaven? You can be certain of it, and the Holy Trinity wants you to be certain of it. Because righteousness is not a result of your works, but is promised you by God on the basis of Jesus’ works, it is certain.
(How the Righteousness that stands before God is distinguished from counterfeit righteousness)
By now many of us know and understand this teaching about righteousness before God. It is called “the doctrine of justification” or “justification by faith alone.” If you know and understand it, thanks be to God—yet no one should think that they know it so well as to not need to hear it anymore. Our sinful nature is powerful, and so is Satan; and we have the constant temptation with us to misunderstand or pervert this good news so that we lose it.
We should especially be on guard against thinking that understanding the Gospel of Christ’s righteousness is the same as actually believing it and remaining in it.
The temptation to merely understand the Gospel without actually believing it has always been with the Church, and it is very much a danger with us in our congregation. Why? Because there are quite a few of us who understand the doctrine of justification, who can even talk about it; but there are not so many of us who show evidence that we believe it.
In the old days Lutherans used to have a saying: “We are justified by faith in Christ alone; but the faith that justifies is never alone.” Our works, our actions in obedience to God’s law do not make us righteous in God’s sight. We are justified before God only through faith in Jesus, without any works. But that faith is always active in doing good works; it never exists where a person is not active in keeping God’s commandments, in serving Him and loving our neighbor.
In the Epistle reading, from Romans chapter six, Paul is making just this point. In the previous five chapters He has taught justification through faith in Christ alone; how Christ fulfilled the law in our place when we were totally corrupt and unable to do anything good in God’s sight; how Christ’s obedience is credited to the person who, without works, believes the promise of the forgiveness of sins in the Gospel; how justified by faith in Christ, we have peace with God and the confidence that we are pleasing to God now, and that on judgment day we will be saved from God’s wrath. All this, Paul says, comes without our works, only through faith in Christ.
But in chapter 6 he raises the question that critics of Christianity often raise: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) Since we are justified by faith alone without works, can we just sin without worrying about it and trust in God’s grace and forgiveness? Paul answers his own question: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:2-3)
No, says Paul. We can’t just sin freely and say “I’m justified apart from my works.” The reason is not because works are necessary for our salvation, but because a person who has the righteousness that stands before God believes and is baptized, and the Baptism we received was a baptism into Jesus’ death. Our baptism with Jesus is not just a watery picture of something that only happens in the heart or the soul. It is a means by which we are united with Jesus in His death.
Faith in Jesus is not simply that we are declared righteous through Him while we remain just as we were before, in slavery to sin. When we believe in Jesus we are counted righteous before God, but at the same time we are united to Jesus Himself. Baptism is a means by which we are justified in Christ—His righteous life and atoning death are offered to us or applied to us, and we take hold of them by faith. It is also a means by which God unites us with Jesus, so that we share in His death and life.
Jesus died once for all time; He took on our debt to death and paid it when He cried, “It is finished” and gave up His Spirit. They took His body down from the cross, wrapped it in cloth and spices, and placed it in the tomb. On the third day He rose again, leaving the tomb empty, and as Paul tells us in Romans 6, “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died, He died to sin once for all. But the life He lives, He lives to God.” (Romans 6: 9-10) So when we were baptized, we died with Christ to sin and rose from the dead with Him to live before God in righteousness. Paul puts it in graphic terms: We were buried with Him therefore by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:4)
Jesus died once for sins, to take them away; when we were baptized, we died with Christ to our sins. Jesus rose from the dead to live before God in righteousness and holiness forever; and so when we were baptized, we were baptized to rise with Jesus and to live before God, freed from sin, gladly serving Him with our whole body, heart, mind, and strength. That will happen on judgment day, when the bodies of Christians will be resurrected in glory, free from sin. But it also begins in this life—it must. A person who has the righteousness that avails before God is united to Christ by faith, and that union with Christ means that he has died to the old life of sin and risen to live as a servant of God—because that is what “heaven” is—not to do our own thing for eternity but to see God and serve Him. Because a person who is baptized and believes has died and risen with Christ, he daily dies to sin and rises to new life. He daily drowns his old nature and does not let it rule. By faith he claims the promise of Baptism—that he is righteous before God—and lives in glad and thankful service to God.
It’s necessary to emphasize this—that living faith results in sanctification—for two reasons.
The first is that many think or say they have faith in Christ when they do not. Since a person who believes the gospel is also a person who has died to sin with Christ, it’s not possible for a person to purposely, willfully transgress God’s commandments and have true faith in Christ. A person who does so and turns in regret to Christ, believes in His pardon, and desires to do so no more may claim the promise of the forgiveness of sins. But a person who sins against God’s commandments with no repentance, no intention of forsaking his sin, shows that he does not want to be dead to sin. He wants to go on living in his sins. That is not faith in Christ; it’s an empty knowledge of the Gospel that leaves a person’s heart unchanged, still in slavery to sin, still hostile to God. A person who claims faith in Christ who doesn’t also daily “drown the old Adam by daily contrition and repentance” and “bring forth a new man to live before God in righteousness” is deluding himself.
It needs to be said specifically that this includes those who persistently despise the third commandment and do not gladly hear and learn God’s Word or receive the body and blood of Christ. How can we imagine that faith in Christ can exist in someone who stays away from Christ and His people? Not only is it disobedience to the third commandment to stay away from the Divine Service, it is also cutting one’s self off from the means the Holy Spirit uses to bring about contrition and faith. Faith in Jesus is not something we can create for ourselves or choose, and once it has been given to us, it isn’t something we can maintain by our own power. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, created in us by means of God’s Word and sacraments. Those who have stopped attending the divine service need the love and prayers of those who believe; they also need us to care enough about them to remind them of these things that they were taught before they were confirmed (or should have been.) But they are not helped when we pretend to ourselves that true faith can live in those who despise the Word of God and the Church in which He places His Word and Sacraments and sends the ministers who distribute them.
Also those who live in fornication may say they have faith in Christ. But when a person rejects the sixth commandment and engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and turn to Christ in repentance, believing the Gospel and desiring to walk in that sin no more, that person can’t have a living faith in Christ. That includes, particularly, those who live with their partner without marriage. A person who has died to sin watches against it and fights against it. If he falls into sexual impurity, he turns to Christ for forgiveness with the intention to go and no do that sin no more. But if you have moved in with your boyfriend or girlfriend, there is no struggle against sin happening. You have let it dominate you, and in such a way that everyone can see it. People who claim to be Christians may say that you can still have faith in Christ and live in sexual impurity, just as people who claim to be Christians insist that homosexuality is not a sin. But they are deceived. The Gospel does not free us to live in slavery to sin without the fear of God’s wrath. It proclaims the forgiveness of sins, and where it is received, it frees people from the domination of sin.
In name these two sins in particular because they are so common. But the principle applies to every willful transgression of God’s commandment, whatever it may be. Such sins show that a person has fallen away and lost living faith in Christ, or perhaps never had it.
But the second reason for emphasizing the nature of the righteousness of faith, that it is active in good works, is that even those who still hear God’s word and aren’t living in obvious unrepentance are weak in good works. Faith in Christ is not meant to stand still; it is meant to increase and produce much fruit to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. When faith is stagnant it begins to die, which can result in the spiritual death of an individual or God’s judgment on a congregation.
At the beginning of the book of Revelation, the Lord Jesus dictates letters to seven churches in modern-day Turkey. In these letters he commends the churches when they are faithful, when they have fought against false teaching, and when they have done good works. But he rebukes several of them for their lack of fruitfulness, in some cases threatening judgment on them if they don’t repent and do the good works that are the fruit of living faith. For instance, the exalted Lord says to the church in Sardis, “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” (Rev. 3:1-3) Until we are risen with Christ and are perfectly in His image, we are not yet complete in God’s sight. We are united to Christ in our Baptism; God forgives our sins for His sake and meanwhile makes us grow into His image. But if we are no longer growing into the perfect image of Christ, but are content to rest where we are, we have ceased to live in our Baptism and ceased to live by faith in Christ, and are in danger of being cut off.
Scripture teaches this repeatedly. Our Lord says in John 15, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit…I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” (John 15:1-2, 5-6)
Peter the apostle writes in his second epistle that Christians should “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge” (2 Peter 1:5) and lists five other fruits of the new man that we are to grow in, concluding with “love.” He goes on to exhort us: “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:8-11)
So we should examine ourselves. Is our faith in Christ knowledge that does not result in a change in us? Do we hate sin, fear it, strive against it with God’s help? Are we eager to serve God, not simply out of fear, but out of love and thankfulness for what Christ has done for us? And because of the struggle to put sin to death and produce good fruit, do we eagerly desire the gifts the Lord gives to strengthen us in faith and love—His Word, His absolution, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood?
And if we find love for sin in our hearts, ambivalence toward serving God and toward His gifts?
Recognize that love for sin and lack of desire to serve God and receive His gifts is sin. It is the root of all other sin, and it brings down God’s wrath.
Let the presence of that sin drive you to seek pardon and deliverance from sin’s power. And that you will find not in your own resources, but in God’s promise in Baptism, where He said that you died with Christ and rose with Him.
If you want, then, to live to God and be dead to sin, count yourself to be what God says you are in your baptism. Then, come to the altar as the helpless sinner you are, and receive God’s help.
In the body and blood of Jesus, He pledges that you are a participant in His death and its fruits. He pledges you share in the forgiveness of sins won by His death.
Eat and drink His body and blood, believing His pledge and desiring to live no more as the servant of sin but in newness of life. Along with forgiveness, He will work in you to bear fruit pleasing to God.
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 25:31-46
November 15, 2015
“He Will Come To Judge the Living and the Dead”
Largely adapted from Tilemann Heshusius
The Gospel reading for today deals with the last judgment, the article of faith that we confess in the Apostles’ Creed when we say From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. This article of the faith is full of comfort for Christians, even though it sounds terrifying. It will be terrifying for those who have not believed in Christ, to be sure.
But for Christians there is no greater comfort than to know that Jesus will return and judge the living and the dead. We do not believe in Jesus so that we can have a better life in this world. If we do, we will be disappointed and disillusioned. “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied,” Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 (:19). Why is that? Because this world is not a pleasure garden. It is a valley of sorrows for everyone, because God put a curse on the earth after human beings fell. But for Christians it is even more difficult. Believing in Christ and walking by faith in Him arouses the bitter hostility of the world and its ruler, the devil. “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you,” our Lord told His disciples on the night He was betrayed (John 15:19). We are not looking for a kingdom in this world. We are waiting for Jesus to return and destroy this world and bring us into a new heavens and a new earth. “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and let us thus offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)
The Bible does not leave it up in the air whether Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. It is certain, as certain as death. That means there will be a reckoning for our lives. In this life God does reward and punish people, but not for everything. Sometimes, even often, unbelieving people prosper in this life, while those who believe in Christ and keep God’s commandments suffer and there seems to be no justice. But God’s Word makes it clear that there will be a reckoning. On the last day Christ will come in judgment “and render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). St. Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
How will the Last Judgment happen? Jesus told the high priest before He was crucified, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). And when Jesus ascended into heaven, two angels told the stunned apostles, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). That is, He will come in the sky in great power and glory. “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him. Even so. Amen.” (Revelation 1:7)
And when Jesus appears in His glory there will be “the voice of an archangel” and “the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:16). Then all the dead will rise from their graves, and the angels will gather all the people together before Christ. And our Lord will separate the people like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. He will separate those who are His from those who belong to the devil. There will be no middle ground. Everyone will be in one group or the other—those at Jesus’ right hand and those at His left. And then He will pronounce judgment on the two groups of people. It will not be a long jury trial. It will be swift.
Now the question before us is—how will Christ judge? What will be the basis of His judgment? The Gospel seems to make works—specifically works of mercy—the ground on which Christ judges. For when He gives eternal life to the saints, He says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink,” but to those who are damned He says, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink.” So it seems that Christ will judge by the law and by works. And there are many other verses that say that at judgment day God will give to every person according to his works.
But this is a misunderstanding. If Jesus were going to judge us by the law of God, we would have to keep the entire law, not just do works of mercy like feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and the prisoner. But Scripture makes it clear that no one fulfills the law of God; everyone comes short of the righteousness He requires in the law. Even the greatest saints of the Bible confessed that they broke God’s Law and would have to be condemned by it if God didn’t show them mercy. David says in the Psalms “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that You may be feared.” (Psalm 143:3)
God has another kind of righteousness by which the ungodly are justified and by which sinners may stand before Him with joy on judgment day. This is the righteousness that God promises in the Gospel. In the Gospel God promises that He will forgive the sins of those who believe in His Son, that He will count His obedience to them, and give them eternal life as a gift of grace.
This gracious promise of the Gospel is the only thing we have to comfort ourselves with on the last day. Our comfort, our hope, our assurance for the day of judgment is that the One who comes to judge the living and the dead is the same One who died for our sins on the cross, who was judged for our sins already, and who endured the wrath of God for us. He also desires to give the Kingdom that He won to poor sinners without any merit of their own, and say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).” We must and can be certain of this judgment, because it is a free gift that Jesus promises in the Gospel through His obedience and suffering in our place.
He promises again and again that through nothing else than believing that He has accomplished everything for us we are counted righteous by God. In John chapter 5, our Lord promises “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
But didn’t we say earlier that everyone, believers and unbelievers, all have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ? How can Jesus say that those who believe in Him “do not come into judgment”?
Yes, we will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. But we will appear with great joy because He has justified us. And we will not be judged or condemned, but instead with Christ we will pass judgment on the world and the devil.
We will stand on Christ’s right hand and will hear words of pure joy: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The strict judgment of the law will fall on unbelievers and hypocrites, not on Christians.
You should take this great comfort of the Gospel to heart. Hide it away and treasure it, so that you may be comforted by it when the devil attacks you and when you are dying. You should not fear judgment day on account of your sins if you believe in Christ. You shouldn’t think, “How will I be able to stand on the Last Day? How will I give an answer to God, since I have so often sinned against Him, and since I don’t have any good works? How will Christ call me blessed and say, “Come here to me” when I have done nothing good?” When such thoughts attack you, consider whether you believe that Christ died for all your sins and paid for them on the cross. If you believe in Christ, that He has done away with all your sins, then the one who comes to judge on the last day is not merely your judge but your advocate, the one who speaks in your defense. He is the one who gives and counts to you all His obedience. Who can be afraid of a judge like that?
So a believing Christian should not pay attention to the fact that he is a poor sinner. He should be certain that he will stand with the sheep on Christ’s right hand, and hear the joyful voice of the Son of God, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.” Believing this, we can await the glorious appearing of Christ with joy, and pray every day that He would come soon.
This is the comfort that belongs to those who believe in Christ and receive His Word of grace. But the unbelieving and the godless will hear another sentence and judgment: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
Do you hear the sentence that will be spoken on all hypocrites and unbelievers, on those who live as though there will be no judgment day, on those who do not listen to God’s Word? When a criminal is condemned to death, the sentence goes through his heart and his bones, and he trembles. But this judgment is far more serious, because it will be no mere man, but God Himself who speaks this judgment.
Here a person will not be put to shame before a few of his peers, but before all of heaven and all of the world. The pain will not only be for a short while as the body is put to death, but body and soul together will suffer in the fire of hell, and this torment will last for all eternity. All unbelieving hypocrites, mockers and despisers of God’s Word, and people who live as if this life is the only one should take this to heart. He who is the judge of the living and the dead warns you faithfully. If anyone has up until now been godless and not considered the last judgment, if he turns and repents, and comforts himself with the holy gospel, the terrifying judgment will pass over him. But if a person despises grace, does not receive Christ the Savior, but continues in sin without repentance, then all the sins that they have done through their whole life—all cursing, mocking, despising God’s Word, drunkenness, greediness, sexual impurity, all evil thoughts and desires of their hearts, and all useless talk—will be revealed before the whole world and punished with eternal pain and the fire of hell.
But someone might reasonably ask—if Christ judges His believers according to the Gospel, why does He say so many words here about the works of mercy? The answer is that the Scripture teaches two things—first, that God will forgive the sins of believers for the sake of His Son, because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. But secondly, Scripture teaches that God will also richly reward all the obedience and good works of Christians in eternal glory.
Not that good works earn salvation, or that good works are necessary for salvation. Jesus doesn’t say that, and whoever teaches it perverts the whole Gospel. Because the Gospel is that Jesus’ obedience has completely won for us eternal life.
The comfort must remain certain, that everyone who believes in Christ does not come into judgment, even if they find no good works in themselves. In the Gospel before us, the believers on the last day themselves confess that they don’t know about the good works that Jesus praises in them. By this Christ teaches us that the saints do not depend on their good works at all on the day of judgment, only on the grace of the judge and the gracious promise of the gospel.
But Christ also witnesses here that He will richly reward all the good works of His believers with eternal joy and blessedness. No work is so little, as long as it comes from faith in Christ, that it will not be rewarded. In Matthew 10 Jesus says, “Whoever gives one of these little ones a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt. 10:42)
The whole Scriptures say the same thing. God said to Abraham, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1) Colossians 3 says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.” (Col. 3:23-24). We should constantly have these divine promises before our eyes, so that we are willing and prepared to serve God and our neighbor.
And here Jesus says most comfortingly that when we have fed and given drink to poor people, visited the sick and the imprisoned, He will confess on judgment day that we gave Him, God’s Son, food and drink. That will be an inexpressible joy and glory before all the world, when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, confesses in the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit, before the saints and angels and the whole world, that we fed Him and gave Him to drink.
How great is the grace and mercy of our Lord! He not only counts His righteousness to us, so that we inherit the kingdom of God by faith in Him alone. He also promises to remember the good works we do in faith and to reward them. May this grace of Christ be so fixed in our hearts by faith that we eagerly wait for the day of His return to judge the living and the dead.
The peace of God, which passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
11th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 18:9-14
August 16, 2015
“Justified and Exalted”
Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
He whose walk is blameless
And who does what is righteous. Psalm 15:1-2
Who will live forever? Who will be honored to sit at the right hand of God? Who will receive God’s praise?
The Bible says: the righteous person. The just person. The one God finds to be righteous is the one He exalts. “Whom He justified, He also glorified,” says Romans 8.
Many people today think that God isn’t concerned about righteousness. God accepts everyone, righteous or not. So goes the thinking of the world. Just about everyone goes to a better place when they die.
But that is not the testimony of the Scriptures. The Bible doesn’t picture a God who is unconcerned about righteousness. The God of the Bible came down in fire on Mount Sinai to speak His ten commandments. There was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled…Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it with fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Exodus 19:16-19 The people were so terrified they were shaking with fear. God has no pleasure in unrighteousness. He wants His commandments kept.
Psalm 11 says:
The Lord examines the righteous,
But the wicked and those who love violence
His soul hates.
On the wicked He will rain
Fiery coals and burning sulfur;
A scorching wind will be their lot.
For the Lord is righteous,
He loves justice;
Upright men will see his face. (v. 5-7)
God does not leave us in doubt as to what righteousness is. “So then the law is holy and the commandment is holy, righteous and good,” says Romans 7 (:12). Do the commandments of God and you will be doing what is righteous. His commandments begin with our obligation to Him and then tell us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The first three commandments tell us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, to use His name in prayer and thanksgiving and not for lying and cursing, and to keep the Sabbath by gladly hearing His Word. First and foremost, a righteous person is a worshipper of God. First He trusts God, hears His Word, and prays, and from this comes love toward his neighbor.
But no one who disregards God’s commandments is righteous.
Since that is true it makes sense that a person would want to be found not only to be a hearer of God’s commandments but also a doer of them. It makes sense that we would want to be those who keep God’s commandments. The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable appears to have wanted to be among the righteous who keep God’s commandments. He avoided immoral conduct like greed and adultery. He tithed on everything he had, which meant he gave ten percent of his income and possessions as an offering to God, as His Law in the Old Testament commanded. He also fasted twice a week, which God’s Law did not command. He seemed to live a strict, God-fearing life, even going beyond the commandments of God.
But God was not satisfied with the Pharisee’s works. He did not regard the Pharisee as righteous and therefore worthy of eternal life. He did not justify him.
Why not? Because God doesn’t justify the hearers of His Law but the doers of His Law. He does not judge us by comparing us to other people, as the Pharisee judged himself. He regards us as righteous if we have actually fulfilled His will. When a rich ruler comes to Jesus later in this same chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, he asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “You know the commandments—do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.” (Luke 18:18-20) The answer to the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” “what must I do to be righteous in God’s sight” is—you must keep the Ten Commandments. The Pharisee never claims to have done that. He thanks God that he is not like the rest of humanity, which is wicked. While he accurately diagnoses human beings—that they are filled with all manner of wickedness—he fails to judge himself rightly because he compares himself to others instead of God’s law. Everyone who transgresses God’s commandments in the smallest point is under God’s curse, because it is written “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:20) If a person has a covetous heart, he has transgressed the Law of God as much as any thief; if a person is lustful, he is unrighteous just like any adulterer. “Until heaven and earth disappear,” says Christ, “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18) The Pharisee comes to God and asks for nothing. He boasts and thanks God that he is not as bad as other sinners. And God finds him guilty, just as surely as God finds you guilty if you consider yourself righteous because you have done better, lived better, than others. Never look at yourself in relation to other people when it comes to your standing before God. Look at yourself in the mirror of the Ten Commandments, and you will have a true sense of what you look like before God, and what kind of prayer you should bring to Him.
That’s how the tax collector in Jesus’ parable evaluates himself. He doesn’t tell us that he read the ten commandments in preparation for coming into the temple (which is, by the way, a good way to prepare for confession and absolution and the receiving of the holy body and blood of Christ—reading the Ten Commandments.) No, Jesus doesn’t tell us that he examined himself in the light of the Ten Commandments. We know it from what he says. He calls himself—not a person who makes bad choices sometimes, not a good person who means well. He calls himself “a sinner.”
Tax collectors had a bad reputation. They were regarded as sinners, whether or not they called themselves that, because commonly tax collectors made themselves rich by charging extra taxes and putting some of that extra in their pockets. When a tax collector went to the temple it was about like a drug dealer or a stripper coming to church. People would look at him as if to say, “What are you doing here?”
And so the tax collector enters the temple. But he comes in the temple with actions and words that speak a different message than that of the Pharisee. They show “a broken and contrite heart” which Psalm 51 says are “the sacrifices of God [which He] will not despise.” (v. 17) Because he doesn’t come into the temple acting like God owed him something, like the Pharisee. He comes but doesn’t look up to heaven when he prays. He stands far off—one would assume far off from God’s presence in the sanctuary, but maybe away from everyone else, too. He beats on his chest, a sign of great mourning. And he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
By saying he was a sinner he was saying just the opposite of what the Pharisee said. Not, “thank you that I’m good,” but, “I know that I am bad.” A sinner doesn’t have a claim on anything from God but His anger. In fact, the Law of God doesn’t hold out any hope for those who break it. It proclaims that God is a jealous God and that He punishes those who hate Him, which is what disobedience to His commandments is—hatred of God. The Law doesn’t hold out hope to sinners. In fact it proclaims with certainty that God will punish them. Because God is righteous, and His Law is righteous, and the unrighteous, the wicked, His soul hates, as Psalm 11 said.
Yet this tax collector has hope. He says, “God, be merciful to me.” The word in the original language is “be propitiated toward me.” That means, “God, let Your anger be turned away from me and Your favor come to me.”
Now, how did it enter into the tax collector’s head to pray this. Was it just some kind of shot in the dark, hoping to win the spiritual lottery, that maybe God would cancel His offenses and let His righteous wrath against the tax collector’s sin pass by? That would be a pipe dream, a vain hope. God is righteous and because He is righteous, unrighteousness, lawlessness, sin, and sinners must be punished.
No, the tax collector was basing his prayer on the Gospel, the good news that has been proclaimed by Scripture alongside of God’s holy law since the fall of man into sin. The tax collector prayed and trusted in the same thing that the saints of the Old Testament trusted in for salvation. They didn’t trust in their works, but in the promise of God to remove their sins, to justify them without the Law. Because David believed God would do this, after he stole another man’s wife and murdered him, he prayed: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51:1-2) Because David believed that God would justify sinners apart from the Law, apart from their deeds, he prayed, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him, and in whose spirit is no deceit.” (Psalm 32:1-2)
In the Gospel, another righteousness is revealed than the righteousness of the Law. The righteousness that is by the Law says, “The man who does these things will live by them.” (Romans 10:5) The righteousness revealed in the Gospel is the righteousness God has prepared for those who are under the curse of the Law because they have not kept it.
The righteousness revealed in the Gospel is the righteousness of Christ. He fulfilled all the commandments of God. He had no other gods, never misused God’s name, kept the Sabbath, always gladly hearing and learning God’s Word, always honored His parents, never spoke a word in hate, never harbored bitterness in His heart, never lusted, never stole, never slandered or gossiped, never coveted. He was righteous in thought and deed. Because He was righteous He merited God’s praise; He deserved to be declared righteous and to be exalted by God.
But instead He humbled Himself. He made Himself nothing and took the form of a slave. He humbled Himself to bear responsibility for our sins, for the sins of the world’s tax collectors and the sins of the world’s Pharisees, for Cain’s sins and for Abel’s, and for all the iniquity and wickedness from Adam to the end of the world. “And being found in appearance as a man He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8) He died a cursed death for everyone who was under the curse of the Law, because it is written “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13) And by His death He redeemed us from the curse of the Law. He did not deserve to die, but He subjected Himself to death as though He was a sinner like us.
Here you can see how the righteousness of the Pharisee and all self-righteousness is directly opposed to the righteousness of Jesus. In our self-righteousness we exalt ourselves and claim we are not like other men. We are not like all the other sons of Adam who deserve death and hell, we claim. We try to raise our heads above the rest of humanity. But in reality we are no better than our brothers. We are transgressors, unrighteous, wicked in thought, word, and deed. But Jesus really was not like the rest of mankind. He was true God, and in Mary’s womb He became a true man. But He was born without the stain of Adam’s guilt and He never disobeyed God’s holy Law. He really was not like us, but He made Himself like us. He suffered with us, was weak like us, was tempted like us. Then He died like one of us, as though He had sinned. And just like we deserve for our sins, He experienced abandonment by God.
That is what the tax collector and we deserve—to beat our chest and weep and gnash our teeth forever because we are abandoned by God for our sins. But instead God has heard the crazy, seemingly impossible plea of the tax collector—“Be propitiated toward me, the sinner!” He has heard our pleas for mercy, too. He blotted out our transgressions in the suffering of His only-begotten Son. And because His judgment fell on His Son, it is no longer directed toward us who believe in Jesus. It is quenched and His favor is turned toward us. He has justified us—declared us to be righteous—through faith in Jesus Christ.
Who may dwell in God’s tabernacle and on His holy hill? The righteous. And the righteous man is the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). The righteous man is justified, declared to be righteous, apart from the Law, through faith in Christ alone. That’s why the tax collector went home justified. We don’t hear that he quit being a tax collector or started to restore what he stole. That’s not because he wouldn’t have begun to turn away from his sin and do good works. He would have; that’s the necessary fruit of repentance and faith in Jesus. But it doesn’t tell us that in Jesus’ parable because the tax collector was justified before he began to change his life. God regarded him as righteous the moment he was sorry for his sins and trusted in the propitiation God was going to provide in Jesus’ death.
That’s how we receive the comfort the hymn of the day had us sing of, when we sang
And to this our soul’s salvation
Witnesses Your Spirit, Lord,
In Your Sacraments and Word.
There He sends true consolation
Giving us the gift of faith
That we fear not hell nor death.
In the Word and Sacraments, in preaching, and Baptism, and Absolution and the Holy Supper, Jesus invites us to believe that in spite of our many sins we are regarded as righteous by God.
As Christians we continue to see and experience our sinfulness. We see our unbelief, our lack of fear of God, our other sins, and sometimes we say, “I hope I’m really a Christian. I hope I go home justified today. I hope I have heaven to look forward to when I die.” In the Sacraments and the Word Jesus, who has been exalted to heaven, justifies and exalts us. In His resurrection He left all the sin He had died for behind forever. On the cross sin and God’s wrath met in Him. Blood poured from His body and grief and anguish from His soul. But in His resurrection sin is as far from Him as heaven from earth. It is removed and destroyed. And in Baptism He pledges that we are united with Him in His exaltation. In the Holy Supper He gives us His crucified flesh and blood that blotted out our sins. There and in the Word He gives us the gift of faith so that we believe that His propitiation applies to us. Jesus has been justified, declared free of sin and exalted to the Father’s right hand. From there He gives the forgiveness of sins in the Word and Sacraments and assures us that we are justified in the midst of our ongoing struggle with sin.
And if you are justified, you are also exalted. Who does God exalt? With whom is He well-pleased? Who will dwell on His holy hill and in His tabernacle? The righteous person. Not the one who appears to be better than others in His own eyes. The one who God declares just. And that person is the one who without works believes in Jesus Christ. That person goes home to his house regarded by God as having fulfilled the whole law. And if God regards us that way, who will say otherwise? If God justifies, who is to condemn? And if God justifies us, He also exalts us. We have His favor in this life and we can boast before Satan and the world that we are pleasing to God. And we have in front of us a glorious hope-not merely that we go home to our house justified, but that God will welcome us into the heavenly mansions as His righteous ones, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. That’s what Jesus invites us to in His Word and Sacrament.
Your great love for this has striven
That we may from sin made free
Live with You eternally.
Your dear Son Himself has given
And extends His gracious call
To His supper leads us all.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 26, 2014
“God is just”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
God is just. People fight against this fact in every generation because it is unthinkable [for us as fallen people]. If God is really perfectly just, if He really insists on absolute goodness in people, who can stand before Him?
That makes it unthinkable for people and they reject it. If God is perfectly just and condemns all unrighteous thoughts, words, and deeds, there is no way out for us.
So through the ages people have invented escape routes from God’s justice. They have tried to redefine God’s justice so that it isn’t so unbending, so that an imperfect person could still be righteous before God. The Jews in Paul’s day told themselves that they were righteous in God’s sight because they knew His commandments and kept them outwardly. In the time of the Reformation, four hundred ninety seven years ago, some preachers came out and told people that if they bought an indulgence from the Pope they were guaranteed heaven.
If the church is going to be reformed and be what God wants her to be, the continuing task of the church is to shut those escape routes. Every time someone tries to open up a new one the church’s preaching has to show that these escape routes are really traps from the devil. God is just. Because He is just, there are no escape routes. You are either righteous, in which case you will receive God’s praise, glory, and eternal life. Otherwise you are a sinner and an enemy of God.
He is just. That means He doesn’t tell us lies to make us feel better. If you stole something, God doesn’t say, “That’s ok. You were just a kid, and after all it was just something small. And now you’re sorry.” If you stole, you’re a thief in God’s eyes. If you’ve lied, you’re a liar. If you’ve slandered you’re a slanderer. If you’ve fornicated, you’re a fornicator.
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 18:9-14
August 31, 2014
“There is a lady who lives in this building who goes to church every day,” a homebound member told me. “Every day she goes. And she does all sorts of good things for people around here. And everyone says, ‘Oh, is she holy.’”
This was a story with a hidden question. The question behind the story was: Does going to church daily make you more pleasing to God than going once a week?
The readings for today raise this question: What is acceptable worship to God? What makes a person pleasing to God?
Jesus answers the question in His parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Acceptable worship is faith in Jesus’ offering. Faith in Jesus’ offering, by itself, without any works, makes us acceptable in God’s sight and is acceptable worship to God. By faith in Jesus’ offering, without any works of our own, we are not only close to God but united to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By faith in Jesus’ offering, without any works of our own, all the works and worship of Jesus are imputed to us. By faith in His offering, without any works of our own, we are forgiven our sins and saved from eternal damnation. This is what St. Paul says in the Epistle reading: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
So does going to church every day and doing good deeds for people bring you closer to God or make you more pleasing to Him? No.
Through faith in Jesus’ offering alone you are already perfectly pleasing to God. Like the tax collector, you are justified in God’s sight through faith in Jesus’ offering alone. Apart from any good works. You are counted as having fulfilled the whole law.