19th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 2, 2016
“Faithful Unto Death—Prayer”
The church at Smyrna left a lasting legacy in the history of Christianity. One of its sons, a man named Irenaeus, wrote perhaps the greatest work of theology in the Christian Church prior to its becoming legal in 313 A.D.—his book Against Heresies, which identified and refuted the major false teachings that had arisen to trouble the Church up until his time. Irenaeus was born in Smyrna and grew up listening to the preaching of Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John. He later became the bishop, or head pastor, of the church in Lyon in modern-day France.
Before this another disciple of John named Ignatius was arrested and sent in chains to Rome to be tried and sentenced to death in the arena, where he was fed to hungry lions. As he made his voyage to Rome, he sent several letters that have survived. One went to the Christians at Smyrna, and survives as one of the few early witnesses to the life and faith of the Christian Church in the first generation after the apostles had died.
Another early witness to the life of the early Church is a short work called The Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is the account of the death of the bishop of Smyrna around 160 A.D. during the persecution that arose there in fulfillment of the words of Jesus’ letter to the church at Smyrna which we just heard. It is the earliest surviving account of a martyrdom outside of the New Testament, and has encouraged generations of Christians to be faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10).
Why did this church, which was slandered and despised by the people of Smyrna, which lived in poverty and suffered so much persecution, receive such a great name and reputation among the churches of its time? Why did it leave such an enduring legacy to the Christians who came after it?
Smyrna’s glory came precisely because it was despised, poor, and full of suffering—and remained faithful to Christ.
That is the way God glorifies the church. Long before this, St. Paul told the first churches he had planted that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Faithfulness through suffering and death are the way to glory and honor before God for individual Christians and for the Church just as they were the way to glory and honor for the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Though He was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
If a person wants to go to heaven, wants to be exalted to reign with Christ at the right hand of God, he must follow Jesus, and expect to endure disgrace with Jesus, to suffer with Jesus, and to die with Jesus. And if a church wants to be honored by God, it must remain with Jesus. It must proclaim and confess Jesus and His doctrine without wavering and endure the shame of the cross.
There is, however, an easier way to glory and honor. It was first offered to the Lord of the Church after His Baptism. The devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9) This is the shortcut to glory and honor, and many churches throughout history have chosen this way that the Lord of the Church refused. It is glory and honor given not by God but the world and the ruler of this world.
Jesus warned about this danger. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26) Nevertheless many pastors and many churches have chosen this way, convincing themselves that they could remain faithful to Christ while seeking the praise of the world, or to lighten the burden of the cross.
A church does not have to stop claiming Christ as its Lord to have bowed down to the devil. It just has to surrender to the devil in one area. Sometimes Christians do this to escape suffering or make it less intense. Other times they do it with the delusion that by making Christianity more acceptable to the world they will advance Christ’s kingdom. We see this today in the non-denominational churches. Many of them have a sincere zeal to bring unbelievers to Christ, but they rely on human techniques to make this happen instead of the pure Word of God. As a result, they tend to sprout up quickly for a decade or two, then dry up when the original pastor dies or leaves or when a new man comes along.
But why is it that it is so easy for the church to surrender to Satan, to choose a Christianity that does not stay with Jesus under slander, suffering, and death? That’s not hard to answer. Our flesh doesn’t want to suffer, experience poverty and disgrace, or die. It’s not just that we have an instinct to survive; it’s that we have unbelief lodged in our flesh. If we want to live, we ought to embrace the cross of Jesus, because it is the way to eternal life. But our flesh doesn’t believe that. It believes that the only life is the life we see and experience now. It doesn’t believe Jesus when He says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); our flesh doesn’t believe that in order to have life we must first die with Jesus. Our flesh refuses to believe that Christ has been raised from the dead.
But the true Church of Jesus crucifies the flesh with its thoughts and desires. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom. 6:3) We died with Jesus in Baptism, and Jesus’ true Church, His faithful ones, continue in their baptismal life. We continue to die with Jesus to the desires of our flesh—its desires for honor and praise in this world, for wealth, for ease and comfort instead of tribulation. We die daily with Christ so that, when we are finished dying, we may share in His resurrection.
Christ’s way to glory and honor through suffering and death is a way proceeding from love toward the world, but it is not a way of compromise with the world. Christians gladly surrender their possessions, reputation, time, even their body and life out of love for the world. But they do not surrender or compromise their Lord’s word. To compromise with the world, to depart from Christ’s command, or to edit His teaching, is to forsake Christ and join the world.
Nor can the Church tolerate compromising teaching in its midst. If it does, it allows that teaching to spread and deceive others, and it joins those who teach it in their concessions to the world and the devil. Jesus is the Lord of the earth. He doesn’t share His throne with Satan and those who share Satan’s rebellion. He proclaims God’s rightful judgment over all men, and God’s forgiveness through His condemnation on the cross.
Compromise with the world and false doctrine is surrender—to the world that is at war with Jesus and His Father, and to the prince of this world.
Whatever peace, honor, or security may come from bowing the knee to this world’s prince, it is only for a short time. Then death comes, and with it, “the second death” (Rev. 2:11)—the everlasting agony and death that will be given to those who refuse Christ’s kingdom—who refuse to suffer with Him in order that [they] may also be glorified with Him. (Rom. 8:17)
Christians are not called to compromise with the world. They are called to conquer it, as Jesus conquered it. This is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith (1 John 5:4). Jesus overcame the world by not participating in its worship of the devil and not giving in to its enticing nor its threats. He was faithful unto death, even death on a cross. Then God raised Him from death and seated Him at His right hand to reign until all His enemies are made His footstool.
By faith in Him the Church also overcomes. The moment we believe in Christ, His righteous life and atoning death are credited to us by God. But we must persevere in this faith to the end, even to death, if we are to share in the eternal victory of reigning with Christ. We conquer by remaining in faith in Christ.
If all that was necessary to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil was an intellectual understanding of the doctrine of justification, it would be easy both to come to faith and to remain in it. But faith isn’t mere knowledge. It is trust in Christ that assures us of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It also renews the heart so that we being to love our neighbor and resist and overcome sin.
But whenever a Christian is led into willful, knowing, conscious sin, he is no longer in the faith that conquers. Rather he is overcome and conquered by the evil one. When a Christian is tempted with sin and submits, he falls from saving faith in Christ. When a Christian is threatened with suffering and death for faithfulness to Christ and gives in, he falls from saving faith.
This is what happened to St. Peter the apostle…
Peter didn’t want to do this. Neither do many of the young people who are confirmed and who renew their baptismal vows to be faithful unto death. Why do they?
Jesus told Peter: Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The faith given in Divine Service is lived in prayer; as a Christian grows in faith, he also grows in prayer. Prayer comes from faith, expresses our utter dependence on God and our trust that He will hear and help us.
Prayer necessary for the growth of the Church, the extension of God’s kingdom, the ability of the church to stand in temptation.
We have neglected prayer and relied on ourselves
But God promises to hear the prayers of the repentant, is able to do far more than all we ask or imagine, to deliver those at the point of death and to raise the dead
Let us call upon God for the forgiveness of our sins and the deliverance of this congregation.
Soli Deo Gloria
Rogate—The Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:23-30
May 1, 2016
“Asking God the Father”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
It’s been a long time for most of us since we asked our fathers for anything, but not for all of us. The catechumens who are here today still have to ask their fathers and mothers for help with their homework, or to let them go over to their friends’ house, or to play video games for five more minutes instead of doing their homework.
What is it like to ask your father for something? It depends on your father, doesn’t it? It also depends what you’re asking for.
I know with my father, who has now been gone for almost nine years, a lot depended on his mood. Since my dad didn’t talk as much as I do, I had to be able to read his mood before I could ask him for something and expect to receive it. I had to know him. And I did know him. At least I knew how to read his moods and tell whether it was a good time to ask him for something that I wanted.
Whatever your father was or is like, I am sure it was the same for you. Knowing your father was a big part of being able to ask him for something and getting what you asked for. You had to know when was a good time to approach him. You had to know how to speak to him. You had to know what he wanted in order to frame your request. “Dad, you know how you always tell me I need to be responsible? I really think that buying me this car will help me learn responsibility.”
Of course, often when we asked our fathers for things, we were tuned into the things they had said only as a means to an end. We weren’t thinking about pleasing them or honoring them when we asked for things. We were mostly thinking about getting something out of them for our own enjoyment. As I get older, I feel sorry about this. I know my dad had many failings as a man, as a father. Yet I owe my life to him. And many of the things in my character that are good I owe to him. And besides this, I know that despite his faults he loved me and wanted me to be blessed. And so, I wish that I had honored my father more, by not selfishly asking him for things that would give me temporary pleasure, but asking him for things that would have pleased him, that I knew he wanted to give me.
Now, as a father, I have a different perspective than I did as a child. When my son asks me for gifts, I usually want to give him what he asks for. But I don’t always. And the reason is obvious enough. I want my son to be happy now, of course. But I’m even more interested in him being happy later in life—being happy because he is a virtuous man, a good man, who knows how to work hard, manage his money, be a husband to his wife and a father to his children, who can be a blessing to his church and a help to his neighbors. I want him to be able to use the gifts God has given him to the best of his ability and not be held back by laziness, lack of self-control, greed or selfishness.
And even more than these things, I want my son to be happy for eternity. And because I want these things more than I want his short-term happiness, I frequently say “no” to what he asks me. When we’re at Wal-Mart and he asks me to buy him a toy, I say, “No, you have a thousand toys at home that you need to learn to pick up and put away first.”
So is it a surprise if you ask your Father in heaven for things and He says “No”?
If you look back at your life, you can probably remember many prayers in which you asked God for gifts you didn’t deserve and He said “Yes.”
At the same time, I know many Christians have asked God for things that seemed like they should be the Father’s will, and He said “No.” Or He said, “Not yet,” and that not yet stretched on for years and years.
And so when we hear Jesus say today, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my Name, He will give to you,” those of us who have struggled in prayer for years may find ourselves feeling depressed at this amazing promise. Or doubtful, or cynical, or perhaps, in spite of ourselves, a little angry. If only being a Christian was as glorious and joyful as Jesus seems to describe it here.
It’s interesting that Jesus describes praying to God the Father in a similar way to the experience I had with my dad. He says asking God the Father for gifts depends on two things—one is being loved by the Father, the other is knowing the Father. Through faith in Jesus we receive the Father’s love: I do not say that I will ask the Father for you, because the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:26-27) But also through Jesus we receive the knowledge of who the Father is, what He is like, what He desires. Jesus doesn’t promise His disciples will receive everything they ask the Father, but whatever you ask the Father in My Name, He will give to you. (John 16:23) “In Jesus’ Name” means we ask God the Father in the authority of Jesus, believing that God the Father receives us as His children because of Jesus. It also means that we ask what Jesus authorizes us to ask. We can ask the Father for anything, as long as we say, “Your will, not mine, be done.” But only when we ask for the things that Jesus has promised and taught us to pray for can we be certain that the Father will give them.
Now if we think back on many of the prayers we have prayed in our life, maybe even most, maybe even all, we will probably discover that most of what we asked the Father in heaven has been like what we asked for from our fathers and mothers on earth. We usually asked our earthly parents for things that would please us. We didn’t think, “My father and mother have been given to me by God to raise me, and He commands me to honor them; they gave me life, so I should honor them.” When we asked them for things we often thought only about what would please us in the short-term, not about what would honor and please them.
In the same way, even when we have prayed to the Father for godly things, often our hearts have been set on ourselves. We may have prayed for our family members, but our hearts were on ourselves instead of on what would glorify God and what would be the highest good for our family members. We were trying to escape pain and to have an easy (or easier) life.
But even more often we haven’t prayed. And the reason was we didn’t know or believe in the Father that Jesus reveals to us very firmly. We didn’t rightly appreciate His great power and wisdom. Even more, we doubted Jesus’ word that the Father loves us and wants to give us everything that is His. We didn’t know the greatness of God’s love for us, the love that surpasses knowledge that Paul describes in Ephesians chapter 3.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on the act of praying. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, it wasn’t something totally new. The Jews prayed a lot. They had a custom of praying every morning and every evening, to go along with the morning and evening sacrifices at the temple.
And today lots of people believe in a God, even though it isn’t the God of the Bible. They think of Him as being a Father, and they pray to Him.
But Jesus gives a privilege and promise about prayer to those who believe in Him that those who don’t believe in Him don’t have. His promise is that those who believe in Him have God as their Father just as truly as He has God as His Father. The unbelieving world doesn’t have this relationship to God. God is the Father of all people, because He created us all. But those who don’t believe in Jesus don’t have the privileges of being children who are fathered by God and live in His house. They don’t live in God’s house, which means of course that they don’t have to live by the rules of His house. But it also means they don’t have the benefits of dwelling in the house of the Lord.
As God’s children through faith in Christ, God the Father has an open heart toward us, like a loving father has toward his children, except that God’s heart is full of perfect love, where a human father’s is imperfect. Because of this love, we can make requests of God the Father and expect to be heard.
But also through Jesus we know God the Father. No one can see God. But in Jesus we have the exact reflection of who God the Father is. Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father, Jesus tells Philip in John 14.
As we grow to know Jesus by hearing and reading His Word, receiving His absolution and His Supper, we grow to know the Father. We learn to know His grace—that He doesn’t deal with us as our sins deserve, but blesses and honors us as though we had never sinned. We learn to know His mercy and kindness, His gentleness toward sinners—even when our lives are hard and from a human perspective it appears as if He is dealing harshly with us. We learn to know His power to save, deliver, and defend us, which knows no limits. We learn all these things especially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. There we see God deal once and for all with our sins. All of them, including the selfishness that has motivated us to try to use God for our own ends instead of seeking Him for His own sake, He laid on Jesus. All of them He judged and punished on the cross. And all of them He showed to be removed, taken away forever when Jesus rose from the dead. And because we don’t believe this, or doubt it, He continually proclaims it to us as we come to church week in and week out, burdened by our failures, our unbelief, our feelings of alienation from God. He continues to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, His testimony that our sins have been erased from His sight.
Because this is true, Jesus tells the disciples, including us, “In that day you will not ask me for anything. Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
When Jesus rises from the dead, we are also alive from the dead. We are dead to sin and alive to God the Father. We are no longer God’s enemies in Adam, but new creatures who live to God in Christ. So when we speak to the Father, we come before Him as little Christs.
Just as Jesus received everything He asked from the Father, so will we.
That means that when we pray for the things Jesus promised us and taught us to pray for, we can be certain that we “will receive” those things. When we ask for God’s Word to be taught purely to us, that He will give us the Holy Spirit to believe that Word, be saved by it, and live a holy life, we will surely receive it. When we ask that God preserve us in that word and faith until we die, we will surely receive it. When we ask for God to give us daily bread—what we need to support this life—He will not fail us. Nor will He deny us forgiveness of our sins when we ask for it, nor support and deliverance from the devil’s temptations, and finally be to be brought out of this world of sorrow safely into the eternal joy of everlasting life.
We don’t pray those things and hope God will give them to us. That’s the way those who don’t know Jesus and His Father pray. Such prayers are not heard.
Instead we pray to the Father with certainty, not only that He hears us, but that He will give us whatever we ask, as though we were His Son.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Georg Zeämann, Superintendant of Stralsund, Germany (1580-1638)
O Lord Jesus Christ, faithful guardian of mankind, I thank you from my heart that you do not leave us to be surprised by Your coming, but instead You faithfully warn us beforehand. Rouse me, dear Lord, from the slumber of fleshly security, that I may diligently guard myself against sins against conscience and, as a wise servant, stand in constant preparedness, awaiting Your glorious appearing from heaven with highest joy and desire, for it is our only and last hope in this wretched time. Come Lord Jesus. Hurry, Lord. Bring to an end the evil days, so that the poor community [of Your Church] may not give up hope. O heavenly foundation and cornerstone, strike the image on its feet of clay and iron, and crush them, and lead us into the new heaven and the new earth, wherein righteousness dwell. Let your saints take the kingdom and eternally possess it. Let yourself be moved to this by Your divine promise and ardent love toward your bride, won at such great cost, and by the fervent longing of the whole creation, the unceasing sighs of Your pious Christians, and the blood of so many thousands of martyrs which has been shed for Your name’s sake. On account of these things, come, dear Lord Jesus, and hurry with Your judgment. Let Your glorious, majestic voice be heard, that heaven and earth may quake. No day passes but that we wait for You, and we would gladly soon be with You. Amen, Lord Jesus, Amen.
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Dear Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen and bring to completion the work that You have begun in us. Yes, hurry to us with the glorious day of our redemption, which by the grace of God we heartily desire, and for which we sigh and wait in a true faith and with a good conscience. Because of this your judgment we have served the unthankful world. But no improvement is to be hoped for it; instead it is the enemy both of their salvation and ours. Come, dear Lord Jesus! And whoever loves You, let him say, “Come, dear Lord Jesus.” Amen.
Prayer in Great Weakness of Faith
Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz
O Lord, I now experience it in truth, that not everyone has faith. I believe, dear Lord, but help my unbelief! You who would not break the crushed reed, nor put out the smoldering wick, O Jesus, You who sit at the right hand of God, intercede and pray for me, that my faith may not cease. Be the beginner and the finisher of faith, wherewith I extinguish all the fiery darts of the evil one. Let me believe, even if I cannot see, and so be saved. Amen.
(Johann Albinus, Pastor at Naumburg. d. 1679)
This prayer was written in the 1600s, but it sounds like someone wrote it yesterday. From the Gebets-Schatz.
Lord Jesus Christ, though no one knows the hour of your appearing, not even the angels in heaven, but only the Father, who has reserved it for His power—still there will be an end to this world and its form will pass away. You will come with flames of fire to take vengeance on those who do not know You, God, and are not obedient to Your gospel. And so that we do not doubt this, You have allowed faithful hearts to know the signs of Your appearing and identified them. The world is now pregnant with these signs, giving certain proof that the end of all things is near. Great signs happen in the sun, moon, and the stars, which fall from heaven and lose their light. One hears of wars and rumors of wars. One nation is incensed with another and kingdom rises against kingdom. There are earthquakes in various places. It is a time of rising prices and famine. Unrighteousness more and more gets the upper hand. The brotherly love of many has grown cold. The times are so terribly wicked that the people are fearful and anxious. They faint and almost perish because of the tribulation and distress that is in the world.
In the church many people have risen up who speak perverted doctrine and falsify Your Word, and Your Word must still endure being called heresy by many. In the secular government power often passes for righteousness. Right is turned into gall and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood; evil is called good and good evil, black must be called white. In the household estate is great unfaithfulness, disobedience, disunity, discord, quarreling, and strife. Even though everyone in common leads a godless life, no one regards it as sinful. These are all signs of the approach of the last day.
Since these are all now hanging before our eyes, graciously help us, Lord, that we take it to heart, and not be secure, or be rash and have our lamps fail like the foolish virgins. Grant instead that we always be brave and pray, do good and not grow weary, that we might thereby escape Your strict judgment and sentence, and might be worthy to stand before Your holy face, when You will come in the clouds with great power and glory, and send Your angels to gather Your elect from the four winds, and from the end of the earth to the end of the heavens. Lord, we wait daily for Your salvation. Come now, O Lord Jesus. Make an end of all our misery and take us poor wretches, together with all believers, to paradise. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen. Georg Schimmer, 1652-1695
Oh my God, even though I am without doubt a poor sinner, nevertheless I am no sinner. I am a sinner in myself and outside of Christ, but in my Lord Christ and outside of myself I am no sinner. For He has paid for all my sins with His blood, as I firmly believe. I also have been baptized and received in it the true mark of Your salvation. I have been absolved of all my sins through God’s Word and declared free of sin, loosed and unbound. I have also been fed the true body and given to drink the true blood of my Lord Jesus Christ, as certain signs of grace. I have received forgiveness of sins, which my dear Lord Jesus Christ merited, won, and received for me through His precious blood. For this I thank Him in eternity. Amen.
Martin Luther 1483-1546
Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz