Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent (December 3), 2017

Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

            Beloved in Christ, I would like to ask Isaiah: “Why are you so anxious? You are one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. Nobody has painted a more beautiful picture of what Christ would do. You foretold that He would comfort God’s people, that He would be the Suffering Servant who would bear the sins of the world, and that He would make everything right when He would return in glory. Indeed, in chapters 60 through 62 you portray how God would restore His people. You describe the church as a rebuilt Jerusalem, where the nations gather, where God is the light of His people and there is no need for sun or moon. So after all those wonderful words, words of hope and promise, why are you such a gloomy Gus? Why do you rain on your parade? Why do you pour forth your lament in chapters 63 and 64, including today’s text?”

            Well, I imagine that Isaiah could turn around and ask us some similar things: “Why are you so anxious? I lived before the Messiah came and did His work of redeeming the world from their sins. But you live after Jesus has come and won salvation for you. Why then are you so anxious? Why in fact do many of you find this entire time of the year so depressing? What could be more thrilling than to prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior? And yet you are frazzled by all the shopping and the parties. You stuff yourselves with chocolate and eggnog, but you are still sour on life. You surround yourselves with friends and family, but feel so alone. You brighten your streets with festive lights, but you act as if you are living in great darkness. Why are you so anxious in this Advent season, when great joy is around the corner?”

            The truth of the matter is that both Isaiah and we have some grounds for feeling dissatisfied. Isaiah may well have known about what Christ’s arrival would mean for the earth. But He was still living in a time when people cared little for the LORD God, let alone for the salvation He would bring. Instead, they preferred worshipping their idols, no matter how often the false gods would disappoint them. So it is understandable that he would break out in a lament, weeping for the circumstances in which he found himself. And we too share in some of that same frustration that Isaiah did. For, even if it is true that Christ has already come and redeemed the world from slavery to sin, the ancient regime of the devil still holds sway over much of the earth. We have not yet received the fullness of our salvation, as we will when He returns in glory. And so sometimes the very sweetness of God’s promises in Christ leave a bitter aftertaste in our mouth, for we know that they are not yet fulfilled.

            But, beloved in Christ, if we listen to Isaiah’s lament today, we can get back on track. We can turn an anxious Advent into a blessed one. For Isaiah teaches us three good lessons that we should learn especially in this Advent season.

           First of all, Advent is all about God coming into our midst. In Advent we look forward to God coming in the future. We say with Isaiah, “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down!” We want mountains quaking and the heathen shaking at the presence of the LORD God. We want no one to be able to doubt that there is a God and that He is exactly the one whom the apostles and prophets have proclaimed. We can hardly wait until Christ, the Son of God, returns in glory as our king. We want to see “every knee bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of the Father.”

            But it is not just about the future. In Advent we look back at the past and see how God has come into our midst then, too. For us that means recalling the birth of Christ and His whole earthly ministry, including His riding humbly on a donkey into Jerusalem. But even Isaiah could recall how God had come into Israel’s midst before.

            He recalled a time when God “did awesome things that [His people] did not look for” and when “the mountains quaked at [His] presence.” He is probably referring to the time when God poured out the plagues upon Egypt and then led the Israelites through the Red Sea. Then they came to Sinai, where the whole mountain trembled as the LORD God descended upon the mountain. Even though it had been several centuries since those events had happened, Isaiah rightly remembered God coming to free His people from slavery. In the same way, it may be centuries since Christ was born and freed us from our slavery to sin and death, but we rightly remember His sojourn among us, even as we desire His return.

            But in the meantime, as we recall the past coming of Christ and await His return, we perceive that God still is with us today. Isaiah put it this way in his prayer to God: “You meet him who joyfully works righteousness, those who remember You in Your ways.” When we meditate upon God’s Word and call to mind all the things He has spoken, we meet Him. No, not visibly, as Christ appeared two thousand years ago and will appear sometime in the future. But the Triune God is with us, as we hear His Word and embrace it. And that truth helps us to live in these days between Christ’s past coming and His return. God is with us, even now, even in our anxious Advent days.

            But if God is coming to us constantly, why would we ever having an anxious Advent? Why wouldn’t we always rejoice? From Isaiah we learn a second truth: Advent gets us to acknowledge our sins. “We sinned” and “[God was] angry.” No, it isn’t just that we sinned, but that “we have been a long time in our sins.” The sins that disturb us most aren’t the casual, one-off sins. We can convince ourselves that they are a fluke. They don’t represent who we really are. Rather it is the sins we repeat again and again, the sins we resolved last December 31 finally to conquer, only to see ourselves repeating them this year.

            Sin leaves a mark on us over time. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” like a leper that nobody wants to have anything to do with. “All our righteous deeds” in the end turn out to be “like a polluted garment,” Isaiah says. Actually, “polluted garment” is a cleaned-up way of expressing it; I can’t say in polite company what it really means. Or to use a different metaphor: we are a shriveled-up leaf that is blown in whatever direction the wind of our iniquities sends us.

            And so we come to the heart of our anxiety: Whether God comes or not, it doesn’t calm our anxiety over sin. If He doesn’t come, His absence shows that He is still angry about our sins. If He does come, His presence terrifies us because of our sins. But thank God that He comes to restore us to fellowship with Him!

            And this leads us to the third truth we learn from Isaiah: Advent is calling us back to childlike trust in the LORD God. It is not enough to know that God comes, especially the second Person of the Trinity, namely, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Neither is it enough to know that our sins make us fear His coming and His absence alike. Instead, we must know that God comes to be our redeemer. He had brought His people out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, not because He wanted to scare the living daylights out of them, but because He wanted them to be saved from the grinding slavery to the Egyptians and to know Him as their loving God.

            In Advent we learn to confess, “O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter; we are all the work of Your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.” Let us work our way backwards through those thoughts. First of all, in Advent we learn that God will “not remember [our] iniquity forever.” We have sinned. We have ingrained sin into our being. But because Christ has redeemed us by His holy life, suffering, and death, God will not remember our sin forever.

            Not only does He not remember it, He purposely forgets it, because it has already been dealt with. Therefore, there is no reason for Him to come in anger or be “so terribly angry” against us. Instead, we can acknowledge that He is “our Father” and that “we are all the work of [His] hand.” We can call upon Him as our beloved Creator rather than as our terrifying Judge.

            But can this all help us when we face the winter blahs and when it seems as if the festivities all around us are pointless cheer? Yes, it can. For God comes to us in the midst of our sorrow, no less than in our joy. He doesn’t gloss over our problem—sin—but neither does He come to destroy us for that reason. Instead, He comes to make us His beloved children once again. That, beloved in Christ, is the antidote to an anxious Advent. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9 and Matthew 20:1-16

            Beloved in Christ, God made us in His image. And for millennia now we have been returning the favor and trying to make God in our own image.

            I don’t mean that as a compliment. When God created us in His image, He was bestowing upon us good gifts. He was endowing us with reason, so that we would not have to live purely by instinct. More importantly, He gave us holiness and righteousness, so that all our actions would be noble and praiseworthy and so that we would live a life of trust in Him. But what did we do? We threw away that gift. Instead of holiness we pursued sin. Rather than being governed by reason, we often follow our basest desires and do so unthinkingly. But to top it all off, we started trying to create God in our own image. We pretended that He was exactly like one of us—more powerful than us, to be sure—but otherwise indistinguishable from you and me.

            We cut God down to our size by calling Him “the Man Upstairs,” as if He were a slightly older human being, but with all our foibles and quirks. We assume that He is as fickle as we are, and that He has basically the same moral outlook we do. Indeed, whatever we happen to think about a particular subject, we assume that it is His view as well, for we are smart, reasonable beings and God must certainly be like us if He is worthy of the name God.

            But then we are confronted with those words from today’s Old Testament reading: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD.” We may try to get God to conform to our expectations and our way of doing things, but we won’t succeed. God will remain God, not a creation of our imagination.

            Therefore, when we come to the Scriptures, we shouldn’t expect to see the LORD God confirming our preconceptions about Him. We are selfish people; the LORD God isn’t. We are tainted by sin; the LORD God is holy. We are limited in our understanding; the LORD God knows all things. Therefore, we should actually be expected to be surprised when we read the Scriptures and learn more about the LORD. This is especially true if we haven’t been Christians all that long or if we have read very little of the Scriptures or if we have read the Bible very superficially. We should expect that the LORD will surprise us when He tells us exactly what He is like.

            And so we should expect that God will demand something greater of us in the way of morality than we would. After all, we are looking for the easiest way out. We are looking for ways to justify our selfish behavior. But if the LORD God is holy and wants us to be holy too, He will have to ask for more out of us. You see, we take the saying “no harm, no foul” and recraft it as “no blood, no sin,” as if you have to harm someone badly enough that they end up in the hospital before it counts as a sin. And since we haven’t done anything that horrible, or done so only very occasionally, we look pretty good.

            But God tells us to get a deeper morality than that. Sure, He forbids us to murder others, but He also tells us not to be angry with them or call them names. Sure, He forbids us to commit adultery, but He also orders us not to look at others with lust in our eyes. Our words and our thoughts are as much subject to His scrutiny as the crassest of our deeds, and they must pass inspection no less than our actions.

            But God’s thoughts are about more than mere morality. That is one of the ways that His thoughts are so much higher than ours. The best we can think to come up with is a mediocre morality. But God wants to establish a relationship with us that is based on something even better than morality: His love, mercy, and forgiveness.

            We see that in today’s Gospel. There we see a man who hires a crew of workers at the beginning of the day and promises to pay them a denarius, which was more than fair pay for a day’s work. Three hours into the workday he realizes that he will need more workers and so he hires some more. He does so again at the sixth hour and the ninth hour. Finally, at the eleventh hour, one hour before quitting time, he hires a final batch of workers. He then pays everyone a denarius. The people who were hired first don’t like it. I suppose that neither would several federal agencies today. Sure, we would allow him to pay the last group of workers a denarius, but only if he upped the pay for the first group of workers to twelve denarii.

            Why do we instinctively have a problem with what the man in the parable? It is because we do not understand grace, that is, when God gives us something that we don’t deserve and couldn’t in fact earn. We look at God as if He were our boss, and anything we get from Him as our wages. If we work hard, we expect to be highly compensated. If we are good people, living upright lives, we expect God to give us high-paying jobs, prestige in society, a great family, and a pleasant life. And if we or someone else messes up and violates one of God’s commandments in a serious way, we expect some misfortune to strike. When it comes to our salvation, we do things the old-fashioned way: we earn it.

            And so we are scandalized by the idea that God would forgive sins, that He would give people something better than what they deserve. We ignore the fact that, if God truly paid people the wages they deserved, everyone would be condemned to hell, for all people have sinned against Him. But let’s say that we were able to live a perfect life and received as our due wages eternal fellowship with God in heavenly bliss. Now imagine that God gives the same gift of eternal life to someone who hasn’t been perfect. We would consider it grossly unfair, especially if that person wasn’t even close to our level of perfection. We would complain that we were being cheated somehow.

            But the man in the parable asks some pertinent questions. He told the workers who worked all day, “Did you not agree with me for a denarius?” Whatever the man gave the other workers, he had not violated his agreement with them. By the same token, God promises that all who are perfectly obedient to Him will receive the rewards of heaven. That agreement is not violated simply because God decides to show mercy to sinners. The man in the parable goes on to ask, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” And that is what it boils down to: We have no right to begrudge God’s generosity. If He wants to show mercy, we have no right to complain, as if we were being robbed somehow or another.

            Far from being cheated, we ought to realize exactly how generous God is, for even the best of us are more like the workers hired near the end of the day than those hired at the very beginning. We will enter heaven not based on our works, but as a free gift received from the LORD God, paid at the great cost of Christ’s suffering and death.

            Now this parable usually leads people to ask the question: If we all can get the same free gift of salvation regardless of whether we trusted in Christ early in life or late in life, then why should we become a Christian early in life and take the faith seriously and strive to live a godly life, when we could turn to God on our deathbed and equally be saved? There are two answers. First of all, you might not have the chance to lie on your deathbed and mull over your life and consider returning to the LORD God. You might die quite suddenly, when you least expect it, without a chance to repent. That is why the Scriptures state repeatedly: “Today is the day of salvation.” There may not be a tomorrow. But there is another reason: we don’t want to miss out on fellowship with God. You see, we embrace the Christian faith not as something laborious but as a gift from God. Or more accurately: where God Himself is the gift.

            It is not a burden to hear the invitation, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” It is not a burden because we know that “He [will] have compassion on” us and “will abundantly pardon.” Therefore, beloved in the Lord, let us rejoice that God’s thoughts are higher than ours, and let us ponder what He has revealed about Himself. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

           Beloved in Christ, it’s not easy dealing with other people, especially people who have wronged you. Like the Apostle Peter, we may be willing to cut other people a little slack, even when we feel the sting of the injury. But, come on, be reasonable. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And so being willing to forgive someone seven times is unspeakably generous. For Christ’s sake we might venture to do that. But then Christ says, “Not…seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Joseph Forgives His Brothers
Lithograph, 1907
            That is a tall order. But in today’s Old Testament reading we see someone who is living by exactly that principle: Joseph forgives his brothers who at one point contemplated murdering him, but instead sold him as a slave to some traders passing by because it seemed more profitable than murder. Let’s be honest. We have all been hurt by others and we have felt severe pain because of it. But most of us have not experienced something on the scale of what Joseph experienced. Therefore, the way that he forgave his brothers is worth thinking about.

            First of all, we should note that his brothers had consciences that would give them no rest. Time heals all wounds, we say. By the same token, we reckon, time should lead us to forget about all the wrongs we have done over the years. But it doesn’t work that way. If we are aware that God or one of our brothers or sisters has something against us, it may bother us for years. Consider that it had been thirty-nine years since his brothers plotted against Joseph. Indeed, it had been seventeen years since they had seen Joseph again, been forgiven by him, and invited by him to live in Egypt. For seventeen years Joseph had treated his brothers with sheer kindness. He did everything to comfort them. But it hadn’t assuaged their guilty conscience.

            You see, Joseph’s brothers assumed that he was being nice simply because he didn’t want to treat them horribly while their father was still alive. As soon as their father was dead, he would treat them as he really had wanted to all along. They thought that even their father’s dying words would have little effect on Joseph. They were willing to enslave themselves voluntarily if only that would turn away his wrath and keep him from killing them.

            When your conscience accuses you, nothing will give you rest. Even the good things God gives you won’t comfort you, because you assume that He is just softening you up before He damns you for good. This is why we must pay careful attention to the words of forgiveness that God speaks. He is not lying. He is not joking. He is not talking idly about things. When He pronounces absolution upon you, this is to be taken seriously. Even if your conscience is burdened, even if you think that there are hundreds of people rightly against you, this is the God’s honest truth: your guilt has been removed and you have been reconciled to God for Christ’s sake.

            Because we ourselves have been forgiven by God for Christ’s sake and because we see that others have been forgiven as well, we take seriously the idea that we need to forgive others too. And so we come back to Joseph and ask: why was he so willing to forgive his brothers? You can say that there are three considerations he took to heart.

            First, he asked the question, “Am in the place of God?” Every time we exact vengeance upon someone, we are acting in God’s place. You see, God is holy. He is also our creator. Therefore, He has the right to act as judge. Since He brought us into the world, He has the right to take us out of it. And because He is holy, He doesn’t let personal feelings get in the way. Whatever judgment He pronounces is righteous and fair.

            But when we judge, we don’t have the same qualifications. We didn’t create the person we are judging and therefore we do not have the right to wish them to cease to exist. Also, we are temperamental, self-serving people—and our justice would be as well. Therefore, we do not have the right to prosecute mercilessly, as if our intense examination of another person’s soul would be accurate and true.

            Now I hope you understand that I am talking about how we deal with other people as individuals. I am not talking about what happens in the law courts. After all, God instituted government to administer a modicum of justice and to keep order in society. And so a judge has rights to fine people, send them to prison, or even to execute them. They should do so impartially and not because they wish to carry out a vendetta against them. But today we are not talking about how the courts of law treat people, but rather how ordinary people like you and me interact with other people. We are not “in the place of God,” and so we must be careful not to act as if we were.

            The next truth that Joseph considered was this: “[His brothers] meant evil against [him].” Joseph forgave his brothers, but he was realistic about what they had done. He didn’t say it was all a “misunderstanding.” He didn’t call it an “accident.” He didn’t say that his brothers had had good intentions but done things in a ham-handed way and so caused harm. No, he acknowledged that they “meant evil.” It takes no effort to forgive someone who has accidentally hurt you, who stepped on your toes because they didn’t see you. It is also relatively easy to forgive someone when you realize that you misunderstood their intentions or they misunderstood yours. Once you clarify things, you see that they weren’t so bad and their offenses are easily overlooked. But when people are doing things out of malice and spite, it is much harder to forgive. But it is precisely those more difficult things that need forgiveness rather than the more mundane things.

            But there is another truth that we have to keep in mind as we acknowledge the evil that is done with evil intent all around us. Namely, while others may have “meant evil,” “God [means] it for good.” In Joseph’s case, when he was sold as a slave, it set in motion events that ended up saving not only his brothers’ lives later on, but the lives of the Egyptians and many neighboring peoples. It is not always easy to see what good God intends to make out of the evil that people plot. And probably the more horrible the evil, the less easy it is for us to understand. But we know that the LORD God is in control of the entire universe. And that means that ultimately even the wicked will serve the LORD’s purpose. And if that is true, then it is easy to forgive people who aren’t all that forgivable.

            I could stop the sermon there and say that Joseph is a fine model for us Christians to follow. And that would be true. But as much as we Christians admire the saints of both the Old and New Testaments, we love and think about our Lord Jesus Christ above all else. And so it is useful for us to consider how those three statements of Joseph would apply to the way that our Lord forgives sins.

            First, Joseph had asked the question, “Am I in the place of God?” Clearly, he wasn’t. It was not up to him to render the final judgment upon humanity or even one individual. But Christ was not just “in the place of God,” He was the Son of God in human flesh. And so He is perfectly authorized to deal with sin. He has the right to condemn all who sin and to condemn them for all eternity. But “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” If God wants to see the world free from His righteous condemnation, how much more should we Christians love to see the same!

            Next, just as Joseph understood that his brothers had “meant evil against” him, so our Lord understands the depth of our sin. If we had no sin—serious sin—then we need no Savior—no serious Savior, at any rate. And Christ could very well have stayed in heaven and left us to muddle along on our own. And there is an increasing number of people, even self-professed Christians, who wish that He had. They deny that breaking some of the Ten Commandments (such as the commandments against adultery or lying) would be a serious sin or even a sin at all.

            But our Lord knows better. We have “meant evil against” Him. Fortunately, for us, He as “God meant it for good.” We crucified Him because we didn’t like His meddling. But He turned that awful event into something good, a way “that many people should be kept alive,” not through some kind of famine (as in Joseph’s case) but for all eternity in fellowship with God.

            And so, beloved in Christ, let us cherish the fact that we have a God who is more forgiving than even Joseph was. And let us share that same forgiveness with others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6, 2016

            Beloved in Christ, is forgiveness truly possible? Can someone truly receive real forgiveness? I don’t mean the sort of forgiveness that says, “Okay I’m too angry and frustrated with the situation and so I’ll just accept the apology and not do anything against you, all the while I harbor a grudge against you and never really warm up to you.” I don’t mean the sort of forgiveness that says, “I don’t trust you for a minute or believe your apology for a second, but I’m just going to pretend that I do because it’s expected of me.” And I certainly don’t mean the sort of forgiveness that says, “Well, I never considered the matter all that significant, even if you did, and so I’m more than happy to overlook such a trivial thing.” I’m talking about real forgiveness, where everyone agrees that someone has seriously wronged another person and the wronged person truly and heartily forgives the other person from the bottom of their heart.

            In today’s Gospel we see that our Lord Jesus Christ believes in that kind of forgiveness and freely gives it. And He tells a parable where there is only one person who believes that that kind of forgiveness is available, namely, the father of the two sons. But as we will see, the two sons do not believe such forgiveness is possible or maybe even desirable.

            Let me begin with the older son first. He may make his appearance last, but it is obvious that he doesn’t believe in forgiveness or redemption of any kind. He has the crasser attitude toward forgiveness—it would be highly unfair towards those who did what they were supposed to do in the first place—but his own sin is subtler and has disguised itself so much that it has fooled him into believing that he doesn’t need forgiveness and therefore forgiveness shouldn’t be offered to anybody.

Il Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri)
Return of the Prodigal Son
            But what do I mean when I assert that he too has sinned and is in need of forgiveness? Well, first of all, consider what he did when his younger brother demanded his share of the property. In his culture he as the eldest son was supposed to bring about some reconciliation between his father and his brother. He was supposed to have sat down with his brother and talked him out of his foolish request. But he did nothing. He just let his brother misbehave because it would make him look better.

            But it there’s more. The father didn’t just give his property to the younger son, but to the older one as well. The parable clearly tells us that “he divided his property between them.” Granted, the older son didn’t sell his share and then move away. But he didn’t exactly protest either when the father gave him his share. He should have. He should have said that it was the wrong thing to do and that he wasn’t going to claim a single thing before his father’s death. But he silently went along with what his father was doing. The younger brother may have instigated the division of property, but the older brother shared the guilt for letting it take place.

            And then we see his attitude fully on display when his younger brother finally arrived home. Listen to his words to his father: “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” Now is that how a loving son shows his affection for his father? Does he say, “I’ve been slaving away for you for many years,” as if his dad were the world’s harshest taskmaster? And do you think that a father who was so generous to his youngest son, even to the point of giving him the inheritance in advance, would begrudge his son a little party with his friends? No. The older son was as distant from his father as was the younger son. The sad thing is that he didn’t know that the father who forgave and loved his younger son also loved him and wanted to forgive his churlish attitude.

            That is a real tragedy: not knowing your own faults, your own most grievous faults, and thus not realizing that you need forgiveness or that forgiveness is available to you. But the younger son reminds us that even people who are deeply burdened by their sins don’t understand that God forgives them. And so we turn now to the younger son.

            We see that the younger son had no clearer concept of forgiveness than the older son did. To his credit, he did recognize that he had done wrong. He acknowledged that his bad behavior had broken the natural father-son relationship. At most he hoped that he could become an employee of his dad’s, for he knew that his father was a good boss to have. He thought about working hard and proving himself to his father—not to be taken back as a son, but to be recognized at least as a decent human being. And so he made the same mistake as his older brother. The older brother told his father that he had been slaving away for his dad all those years. The younger brother wanted to be treated as one of the hired servants. Neither brother believed that they had a gracious father who wanted to treat them as his beloved sons.

            If only they had known that their father loved them and forgave them! Not in some kind of half-hearted way, either. No, He forgave them from the bottom of his heart. And he did so at tremendous cost to himself and his own dignity. I think that we as westerners are likely to overlook some of the ways in which the father in the parable was downright generous in his forgiveness. Of course, first, most fathers in just about every culture would understand a child’s request for the inheritance to be nothing short of telling him, “Drop dead.” Such insolence was very much frowned upon in our Lord’s society. Most people would have expected a father to treat his child as dead after such an insult, no matter how much they came groveling later on. But notice also that the father doesn’t allow his son to grovel. His son begins his speech, but the father cuts him off. The son would naturally have stooped to kiss his father’s hand, a custom of that day, but instead the father falls upon his son’s neck, which prevented the son from doing that. It isn’t because the father is angry. Quite the opposite. He doesn’t want his son to grovel in the least, but is glad to forgive him wholeheartedly. He doesn’t want the other people in the village to see his son groveling, lest they mistreat his son, even though he is at peace with him.

            To reinforce that he has completely forgiven his son and that no one in the village should interfere or act as if the son needed to make further amends, the father threw a banquet that would feed the entire town. He made sure that everyone saw that he had put his own best robe on his son and put his own ring on his son’s finger. This reconciliation would have been a costly affair, to be sure, and the father had to bear all that expense. But if he had not done it, the villagers might well have lynched the son.

            In the same way, God forgives us at great cost. It isn’t just a word or two spoken half-heartedly. It is something that cost God the Father His very own Son and that cost the Son His very own life. Nor was this a decision made on the spur of a moment, when God was overwhelmed by emotion and decided to pay such an extravagant cost—an impulse buy, if you will. No, it had been decided before the dawn of time that this is what the Son would do. The Father and the Holy Spirit poured themselves out into the Son’s work, so that it would have their blessing. The entire Triune God was intent on saving us human beings. No cost was too great to pay in order for mankind to be redeemed.

            And that forgiveness is ours today. It is real and total forgiveness. We aren’t put on probation for a while or made to be servants until we can show that we are worthy of God’s trust again. Nor is it a one-time deal, as so many people mistakenly think. You don’t just get one chance to be forgiven after you royally screw up and nothing thereafter. Rather, God gives forgiveness throughout our entire life, because He knows that we will struggle with sin as long as we live.

            God forgives lavishly and generously, for He knows that is exactly what we need. And that is why He gives that gift in many forms. He forgives us by washing our sins in holy baptism and calling us His beloved children. He forgives us our sins through the Word of God, as it is read both in church and at home. He forgives our sins by holy absolution, where the pastor by God’s command and not his own initiative imparts the forgiveness that God has commanded to be given to all repentant sinners. He also forgives our sins by imparting Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. There we are given the very means by which Christ won forgiveness for us—the body once nailed to the cross and the blood once shed on Calvary for us.

            And that is why we gather every week. There are places that can entertain you better. There are other places that can lecture you on various enlightening topics. But only here, that is, in the holy Christian church, do you find the forgiveness of sin offered again and again. Real forgiveness for real sinners.

            Yes, real forgiveness is possible for real sinners who have committed real sins. May you believe that with all your heart! In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016

Text: Luke 13:1-9

            Beloved in Christ, we are in Lent because we need another chance. As we learned two weeks ago, if someone like the holy Son of God can be tempted, so can we—and we will not be as successful as He was. And so we need another chance. We need another chance to take on temptation and this time get it right. As we learned last week, if the high priests and religious leaders in the holiest of cities, Jerusalem, could fall into hypocrisy, formalism, and other sin, so much so that they ended up clamoring for Christ’s death, so can we. And so we need another chance. We need another chance to repent of our mediocre Christianity and to embrace the life that God has given us.

            But what shall we do with another chance? The problem with second chances is that we will simply do what we did the first time around. We will make the same errors and end up in the same place. Or we will compound the old errors with new ones and make things even more of a mess.

            That is what some people in the crowd did in today’s Gospel. They had come to our Lord Jesus Christ because they knew that He offered forgiveness and new life. But what did they do when they had a chance to live and think better than they had in the past? They pointed to some people who had suffered horribly and thought themselves better. They assumed that those Galileans who had been butchered mercilessly and in a sacrilegious manner were worse people than themselves. Because they had escaped such a fate, they assumed that everything was all right with them. But, of course, such an attitude was a very foolish one to take. After all, the Galileans who were butchered could also have reasonably thought themselves superior to their peers until Pilate killed them. Don’t boast about the downfall of others when you don’t know your own outcome.

            It is tempting to look at the manifest sins of other people and the consequences they suffer rather than to look at our own. It doesn’t help that we live in a society that is dead set against God and His Word. Just when you think it cannot get any crazier, it does. Our culture long ago decided that it was going to deify every person’s desires. Whatever you feel in your heart has to be right, it decided. At first, it simply meant that you should pursue your dreams, even if it meant shirking your responsibilities. Then it meant that you should marry someone you had fallen madly in love with, even if it was just five minutes ago and you were already married. Then people started saying that since marriage ought to be all about following your heart as it feels right now, then it doesn’t matter if it is a marriage between a man and a woman, two men, two women, or three or more partners. More recently, men have said that if they feel more like a woman (or vice versa), they must be called one by the rest of society. Even more recently, a woman has declared herself to be a cat trapped in a human body and has demanded to be treated accordingly. The Crazy Train has definitely left the station and is not turning back. And I fear that this is simply the first act of a long play in the Theater of the Absurd.

            We religious people are tempted to shake our heads and mutter about the world going to hell in a handbasket. We look to see people getting their comeuppance for this crazy behavior. Indeed, we might well point out that one craziness has grown out of earlier forms of craziness, and that there is no worse punishment than when God allows people to follow their hearts’ desires all the way to the bitter end. We expect our pastors to preach long and hard about the wickedness in this world and the folly it has unleashed. We expect our pastors to proclaim how God smote the Galileans and the people upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell in Jerusalem.

            It feels good to see people get their just deserts—or failing that, to know that those just deserts will soon be meted out. But it is not spiritual helpful for us. It takes the focus off of ourselves and problems, where it needs to be. For we ourselves are also a boiling cauldron of wicked desires. We too often live more by how we feel than by what God has to say. And so while we think of how God might smite the wicked who serve their flesh or their belly, we might easily overlook how the same fate might await us.

            A far more sensible approach would be to realize that we have been given a second chance. The Galileans didn’t have such an opportunity. They might have wanted to amend their lives in several different ways and even resolved to do so once they got back home after making their sacrifices. But they never had the chance to follow through. The people who were crushed by the collapsing Tower of Siloam were even less lucky. At least the Galileans could see the swords coming and steel themselves for the moment of death. But by the time those eighteen unfortunate souls realized that the tower was collapsing upon them, they would have been dead. But we are still alive. We still have the chance to hear the call to repent, to turn from evil, and to turn to God—and live.

            We are like the fig tree that should have borne some kind of fruit by now, but hadn’t. We have been given another chance. We may still have another chance tomorrow and the day after that and next week and in the decades to come. Maybe, but then maybe not. We don’t know when the ax will finally be laid against the tree. But we have been given another chance today. Let us avail ourselves of it.

            But why do we have another chance at all? Is it simply because God doesn’t really care whether we repent or not? Of course not. He just has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but [desires] that the wicked turn from his way and live.” He wants us to use our opportunity to hear His Word at long last and to stop thinking that indulging ourselves is the best way to live. He wants us to take seriously the fact that He has sent Christ into the world.

            For it is in Christ Jesus that we have all been given another chance. That second chance wasn’t an easy thing for Him to acquire on our behalf. Like the vinedresser in today’s parable, He had a lot of work to do if that second chance was going to hold. We are tempted to look at people who give second chances to people as lazy. The vinedresser didn’t want to wield an ax and that is why he talked his way out of that task. But actually the vinedresser signed up for more work. It would have taken just a few whacks with a stout ax to chop down that relatively young fig tree. But the vinedresser signed up for a more ambitious project. He would dig all around the tree and mix manure into the soil. That would take much longer to do than simply chopping down the tree, and it might even have had to be repeated more than once. And it must have stunk when he brought the manure over to the tree, and the vinedresser himself must have stunk at the end of the day. So, no, this second chance did not come cheaply to the one who gave it.

            Neither did it come cheaply for our Lord Jesus Christ. It required Him to live a completely holy life for us and then to go to the cross. It stank to have to do such a thing, especially when not everybody would welcome what Christ was doing or avail themselves of the second chance that He was winning for people. And yet He enthusiastically threw Himself into this effort.

            Because He did so, we still have another chance. In fact, we have another chance each and every day. He gave us that second chance resolutely when He baptized us and called us to faith. That was what began the good work in us and began to produce the fruit of faith—things such as trusting in God, loving Him and our neighbors, doing good works that please Him, and the like. But, of course, we realize that we do not do as much of those things as we should. It isn’t that we bear no fruit, for we are true Christians and not utterly unbelieving heathen, but we recognize that we still need more chances, for our life is not as God would have it be.

            That is why God is not just a God of second chances, but third chances and fourth chances and so on. Yes, there will ultimately be a day when we will not have any more chances to amend our sinful lives further. But until our Lord calls us home, He will greet us each day with the forgiveness of our sins. That is why we gather as Christians here every week, so that we can hear His holy words of absolution, listen to the sweet gospel being preached here, and receive Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. We not only hear about a second chance through these gifts, but we actually receive another chance through them.

            And so, beloved in Christ, let us not focus all our attention on the way that the heathen are living. Yes, they need to be admonished, for God wants them too to have another chance. But let us take seriously the call to repent and then even more seriously enjoy the forgiveness of sins that gives us another fresh start. If we do that, if we take seriously the additional chances we have been given, then others will perk up and take notice. But the rest of society only will be moved to consider the Christian way of thinking and living when God’s own people take His Word seriously.

            Therefore, beloved in Christ, let us focus on the additional chance given to us. Let this renew us and increase the fruit of the Holy Spirit that we bear. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2016

            Beloved in Christ, when the prime ministers of Great Britain and Canada talk about the political parties that are out of power, they usually refer to them as “her Majesty’s loyal opposition.” By so doing David Cameron and Justin Trudeau are acknowledging that Queen Elizabeth had asked them to form their respective governments, but that the parties not in power are still loyal subjects of the queen, even if the government will not always take their ideas into consideration. However, all parties concerned would recognize that there is such a thing as a disloyal opposition. It would be the people who would try to overthrow the government by bullets and bombs, not the ballot box.

            Well, in the same way not every disagreement among Christians makes a person disloyal. Christians may legitimately disagree with each other about the best way to organize a congregation or which activities in a local church will have precedence over others. Some will want to decorate the church one way and others another way. Christians ought to listen to one another and weigh those ideas. But at some point a decision will have to be made, and one idea will prevail over others. In that case, those in the minority are invited to be “the loyal opposition.” They will loyally support the decision of the majority for the sake of Christian love and peace in the church, just as they will ask the reverse to hold true when they happen to be in the majority.

            Today’s Gospel, however, does not introduce us to the loyal opposition, but rather to the not-so-loyal opposition. Just as any country faces the danger of those who would overthrow it, so we as faithful Christians must recognize that there are people who oppose Christ and desire to thwart the coming of God’s kingdom.

            Some of that opposition comes from people like Herod—tyrants who see Christ and Christianity as a threat to their government. They do not want citizens who might be beholden to a higher power. They do not want to have to deal with people who live by a different standard than their edicts and laws. But people like Herod are rather crass in their opposition to God and to the Christian faith. They use rather crude instruments such as executions and imprisonments to stop the spread of Christianity. And their rather crude measures usually fail in the end because they cannot deal with something like the gospel, which is so radically different than the political machinations that they are used to dealing with. And so some of the real opposition Christians face comes from worldly powers, and we must acknowledge as much.

            But, interestingly, it isn’t the worldly powers-that-be that pose the greatest danger to the church. Instead, the gravest dangers come from those who pass themselves off as godly and pious while in reality they are rank unbelievers. It is so easy to focus on wicked people like Herod and to overlook seemingly pious Jerusalem. The Pharisees thought that the real showdown would take place between Herod and Jesus. After all, Herod was a self-indulgent, heathenish, two-bit tyrant. Surely Herod was our Lord’s enemy and Jerusalem was His friend. But Jesus saw Herod as a sideshow. The real contest would be in Jerusalem. It was Jerusalem that had murdered the prophets. It was Jerusalem that had rejected God’s attempts to win her over. It was Jerusalem, not Herod, that would crucify Jesus. To be sure, it would be Pontius Pilate—the governor—who would execute Christ, but only because the religious leaders in Jerusalem had demanded it. One must remember that Jerusalem wasn’t a political capital at that time. Rome was the capital of the empire, and Caesarea was the local power base for the Roman government. It was only because of the Passover that Herod and Pilate were in Jerusalem. Thus, Jerusalem wasn’t a political capital, but rather a holy city, a religious place—the center of godliness, of Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes.

            Now our Lord did recognize that Herod posed a threat. He was a sly fox. He may very well have sent some Pharisees—people Herod normally would not have stomached—to warn Jesus to flee. This way Herod wouldn’t have any blood on his hands, as he had after he had killed John the Baptist, and he would still have gotten rid of Jesus. Our Lord knew that Herod was a crafty one and you had to watch him as you would a fox. But it was Jerusalem that was our Lord’s great enemy. You see, the craftiness of the heathen is not as dangerous as the hypocrisy of the pious.

            God detests those who simply go through the motions of being religious while having completely unrepentant hearts. We call this “formalism.” It is the belief that all that matters is having an outward form of godliness, all the while letting our hearts think and do anything they want. It says that we can “walk as enemies of the cross of Christ,” “with minds set on earthly things,” as long as we utter pious platitudes now and then. The problem isn’t the words. The problem isn’t the outward forms themselves or the patterns of piety. After all, we will always have to use one form or another. The problem is that we do not listen to what the words are saying.

            As the apostle Paul writes in today’s epistle, Christ had come so that He could “transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself.” He didn’t come merely to go through the motions. He didn’t come to pretend to redeem the world by pretending to die on the cross. He came to deal with our death by undergoing a real and agonizing death. He came to deal with our sin by handing Himself over into the hands of sinners. He came to deal with our separation from God by undergoing an intense feeling of loneliness on the cross. He came to deal with a broken world by allowing Himself to experience its brokenness at its worst. And He came to bring us healing and life by rising from the dead. He didn’t appear merely as a ghost when He rose. He came back with flesh, blood, and bones. He didn’t doff His body as if He had had it only to go through some motions here on earth for three decades. He still dwells in that body. He will always be the Son of God who has taken on human flesh throughout eternity. He stays forever the God-Man because He is seriously committed to us human beings and He wants to “transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body” when He returns and raises the dead.

            Where does that leave us then? We do not want merely to be going through the motions.  But what is the cure? It is to cry out, as our Lord tells us to, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” There are two things going on when we do that. We recognize that He is the one who comes in God’s name in order to save us. And we confess that our hopes depend upon Him, for He is the blessed one. If that is our understanding, then we will do what Paul tells us in our epistle. We will be heavenly-minded instead of earthly-minded. We will imitate godly people who have lived before us rather than just living for our bellies.

            Above all, we will approach God’s Word differently. Ultimately, the problem with Jerusalem was that it was a “city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” And, ultimately, that is the problem with us when we are going through the motions, when we are pretending to be religious but are not listening to the Word of the Lord. Every time we open the Scriptures or come to church, we should say, “God is speaking to me here. Let me listen as if my very life depended upon it, as if all of eternity was at stake. He calls me to recognize my sin and to repent. I will do so as if I were fleeing a bear that was intent on devouring me. He calls me to trust in Him for my salvation. I will do so as if I were clinging to a branch and if I were to let go, I would fall off a cliff. He comes to transform me. He will raise me on the Last Day and give me a glorified body, just as His body was glorified after His resurrection. But in the meantime, He wants to still transform me in this life. He wants me to grow to be more like Him. And so in the time I spend with Him, I will let His Word have its way with me so that I know Him better and have a mind no longer conformed to this world, but transformed and renewed.”

            This is the attitude that we need to maintain all the time. It is an attitude that we must especially cultivate if we are like Jerusalem, people steeped in years of acquaintance with God. We may think that we know it all and have done it all. But each and every day, each and every week we must approach God’s Word as if we were coming to it for the first time and hearing its life-changing word for the first time. May God grant us to do this during this Lenten season! In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016

            Beloved in Christ, Lent is a time for renewed discipleship and a time to focus upon Christ our Savior. The two go hand in hand. The more we take seriously the call to discipleship and struggle, the more we see that we need a Savior. And the more we see all that our Savior has done for us, the more eager we are to be truly His disciples.

            One of the first things we need to learn is the struggle against temptation. No one can be a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ without earnestly wanting to avoid sin. And no one can be a disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ without understanding how quickly and unthinkingly we surrender to temptation. Some temptations are severe, some more ordinary, but temptations aplenty there will always be.

            Perhaps the one thing that is most distressing is how simple but successful temptations are. Yes, the devil can use all sorts of subtle tricks, but he usually doesn’t have to resort to such measures. He can use the very same temptation that has tricked us a thousand times before, and he will still succeed far too often. We are like Charlie Brown, who has seen Lucy pull the ball away a thousand times before whenever we try to kick the ball. It doesn’t matter. We believe Lucy when she says that this time is different and that she will really hold the ball. And then we are surprised to see that she has lied once again. In the same way, we are tempted to believe Lucifer when he says that this time is different and that the forbidden sin will bring us happiness this time. But in the end we see that we are as disappointed as always.

Simon Benning
The Temptation of Christ
            Temptations come in several forms, but there are three worth mentioning today. There is the temptation that says, “Your immediate need outweighs God’s law.” This temptation recognizes that God’s law is a worthy ideal, but it asks us to make compromises. It tells us that it is no good killing ourselves by keeping the law, but that rather we should do what we need to do to live another day so that we can keep the law then. A second temptation tells us that the only way to acquire power and glory is to go along with evil to some degree. It flatters us with the thought that we, of course, would use that power for good, but first we have to acquire it so that we can make good use of it. And then there is the third temptation that often goes with the first two; it tells us that God really wouldn’t let any serious thing happen to us if we were to break one of His rules.

            These are three common temptations that are nonetheless still successful, despite the fact that the devil has been pulling these tricks for millennia. In truth, when Adam and Eve fell into sin, they succumbed to these same three temptations. First, they said that their need outweighed God’s command. As far as they were concerned, the fruit was good to eat and a delight to behold, and that was all that mattered. Second, they craved godlike power. I’m sure they could easily justify their aspiration for power by saying that they planned on doing a lot of good in the world with it. And, third, they believed the devil’s lie that there would be no consequences. They wouldn’t die, he had reassured them, and they fell for that lie.

            And so the first thing that we need to do is to discern that temptation is all around us. It won’t come with a warning sign. There will be no notice that this is a test. And so you will likely not see that it is a temptation until it is too late. And so if you can’t think of any temptations you’ve had to face this past week, it is probably because you yielded to all of them without even realizing what you have done. If that is the case, be on the alert. Understand that you cannot escape being tested from time to time, as long as you are in this world. And so be ready for temptations when they come.

            You see, being a faithful Christian means that we should be on the lookout for temptation and be ready to fight it. But being a faithful Christian also means looking to the one person who has defeated temptation again and again, namely, our Lord Jesus Christ. We look to Him for help in two ways. First, we ask that He would be our Savior amid temptation and that His victory over sin would defend us from all evil. And then we look to Him as an example so that we too can conquer temptations when they come.

            It begins with Christ being our Savior. It isn’t that we cannot learn from His example, for we certainly can. We’ll talk about that in a minute. But first and foremost Christ is our Savior. Try as hard as we might, we will not leave this world without succumbing to a number of temptations. And so we need someone who can conquer—indeed, has conquered—the devil and all the forces of evil. We need someone to win the victory that our will power just isn’t strong enough to accomplish.

            That is why Christ underwent a more severe testing than anyone else has done so that He could overcome Satan on behalf of all humanity. Very few people go without any food for forty days. Moses and Elijah did, when each of them spent forty days with God, but we do not read in either instance of them being hungry. In fact, an angel gave Elijah a special meal to last him through the forty days so that he wouldn’t become hungry. But Christ underwent this serious ordeal and suffered horrible pangs of hunger. Furthermore, none of us have been tempted with all the kingdoms of the world. The best we might hope for is the corner office or a small company to manage. We’re not even one of the umpteen people who ran briefly for president. But Christ was tempted with all the power in the world. And we are unlikely to find ourselves transported miraculously to the top of a tall building and then told that we could be equally miraculously delivered if we jumped from it. So, even if we face some temptations that resemble our Lord’s, none of them match in their intensity what He went through.

            Nonetheless, He did not succumb even for a moment to the devil’s lies. And so He lived a truly holy and perfect life on our behalf. That was the first step He had to undertake in order to redeem us. You see, Christ had to do two things if He was going to save us. He had to live a perfectly holy life to substitute for all our rotten deeds. And then He had to suffer the punishment we had deserved by going to the cross and dying there. In today’s text we see the first step rather than the second one. But without that first step of Him living a perfect life for us there wouldn’t have been a second step. Instead, He would have gone to the cross for His own sins, not for ours. But because He lived a holy life in our place, He could also go on to die in our stead, too.

            But as I mentioned, Christ is not just our Savior, but our example, too. We appreciate the fact that He has delivered us from the devil’s power and from hell. And we show that gratitude by trying to fight temptation whenever it comes along. We can learn a lot by watching Christ in action, as recorded in today’s Gospel. The main point is to rely upon the power of God’s Word. Notice that Christ didn’t invoke His own divinity. He didn’t say, “I am the Son of God. I have power over all creation. Be gone!” That is a good thing, because we wouldn’t be able to do the same thing. Instead He quoted the Scriptures. He had obviously studied them in advance and was prepared to quote them. And that is a tool you and I have. The Ten Commandments and other passages of the Scripture give us more than enough guidance to determine what is the right thing to do in any circumstance. We need only repeat them, as appropriate.

            But as the way Christ handled the last temptation clarifies, when we quote the Scriptures, we really must understand what they are saying and why they are saying it. We have to put each Scripture passage within its own immediate context as well as the context of the entire Scriptures. If we don’t, the devil will be able to mangle the Scriptures and confuse us.

            Skeptics, cynics, and other followers of the devil love to take one passage from the Bible and try to set it against another. You can quote them a clear passage from the Bible, but it won’t make an impression because they can twist fifty other passages to prove their point. For example, have you noticed how people will quote the words of our Lord, “Judge not,” whenever someone shows from the Scriptures the difference between right and a wrong and ever so gently calls people to change their behavior? But, of course, such people don’t really want to look at what our Lord is saying there. Instead, they quite judgmentally chide others for being judgmental. But if you look at the immediate context of Matthew 7, you will see our Lord criticizing all sorts of bad behavior and even calling people “hypocrites” and worse. So if “judge not” is supposed to mean “never criticize,” then clearly our Lord did wrong. But a more natural explanation is that we should never write someone off as being irredeemable. Yes, we may and should criticize bad behavior and evil attitudes, but we should do so with the attitude of leading people to repentance.

            And so our Lord was not fooled when the devil tried to quote a Bible passage that said that God would send His angels to protect His people and then drew a false conclusion, namely, that one should provoke God into acting and giving this protection. But Christ knew that that wasn’t what that passage meant, and so He quoted another passage of Scripture. So while the devil was trying to set one passage of the Bible against another, Christ was interpreting one Scripture passage in the light of another. He was making sure that He was interpreting in its context.

            And so, beloved in Christ, may you be armed with the Scriptures and with the forgiveness of Christ as you confront temptations this week. Christ has already won the war. Now let Him help you in your daily battles. In Jesus’ name. Amen.