Monday, October 31, 2011

LSB Proper 26A Sermon (Reformation Sunday) -- Matthew 23:1-12

October 30, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. . . . Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’”

Once again, we hear Jesus speak with authority in the Temple: “Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice.’” Jesus’ words speak judgment against the scribes and Pharisees, those who were the spiritual leaders of the ancient Israelites. Being on the receiving end of such judgment is not where one wants to be. Yet, the judgment is rightly spoken against them. Why does Jesus say these words? The scribes and Pharisees had led the Lord’s people astray by their actions. The way of life that they showed by their deeds contradicted the way of life that the Lord revealed through His Covenant with His people.

What was the Pharisees’ way of life? Jesus describes their actions: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.” Shows of holiness that brought honor to themselves: that was the piety of the Pharisees. They missed the heart of the Lord’s Covenant disclosed in the Scriptures. They would read what the Lord said, even authoritatively reading it to ordinary people, but not put it into action. So Jesus says: “For they preach, but do not practice.”

Jesus’ words are similar to what the Prophet Micah spoke against the spiritual leaders of the Israelites seven centuries earlier. The problem was the same: those put in charge of the spiritual welfare of the Lord’s people were misleading them. Micah’s words make it clear: “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead My people astray, who cry ‘Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. . . . [Israel’s] heads give judgment for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets practice divination for money; yet they lean on the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us.’” Selling blessings, mercenary preaching, future telling for a price: those were the everyday practices of those false prophets, the practices that distorted the Lord’s Covenant and corrupted the faith of the people.

In both cases, the Lord sends someone to speak against what the errors of the spiritual leaders, those who were going beyond their authority and were setting up a religious system other than what the Lord instituted. At the heart of the Lord’s Covenant was what He Himself was doing for His people. It revealed how He would give forgiveness, life, and salvation to those who are tied to Him and His gracious promises. Belief in His steadfast love and trust in the remedy that He offers for sin: that was the heart of the Covenant.

This is what Jesus points out in His teaching to the crowds and His disciples. After laying out the problem of the Pharisees’ ways, He gives instructions for His followers: “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant.” Jesus prescribes actions opposite of what the Pharisees were doing to achieve honor for themselves. Instead of striving to acquire their own glory, Jesus’ followers are directed to the glory that the Lord gives to His people who find nothing good in themselves. This central point is found in how Jesus concludes His statement: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The focus is removed from what the individual attempts to do and directed towards what the Lord will do for them. Pride in oneself must be removed; humility must be the attitude shown—and this stands true for the common person and the spiritual leader alike. Exaltation is given, not achieved. The Lord lifts up the sinful individual from his guilt and imperfection and restores them to life. This exaltation is done for those who receive the merits of Him who humbled Himself by becoming a servant, living for the benefit of others, and being crucified bearing the sins of all mankind. Unlike the Pharisees, Jesus preached and practiced. What Jesus set out for His people is what He Himself did. Humbled in crucifixion, Jesus was exalted in resurrection. By doing so, He becomes the source of exaltation for those who humble themselves, removing all thoughts of goodness and worthiness in them, and seek out what must be received from the Lord.

This central thought of humility and exaltation is found in the teaching documents of the Lutheran Church. As this Sunday also commemorates the Lutheran Reformation, it is good to direct our attention to them. At the heart of our teaching is what is said about Jesus and salvation in the Augsburg Confession, Article 4: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 & 4).

Concerning our good works, Augsburg Confession, Article 6 states: “Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith. The voice of Christ testifies, ‘So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty”’ (Luke 17:10). The Fathers teach the same thing. Ambrose says, ‘It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving forgiveness of sins, without works, through faith alone.

Luther’s statements in the Small Catechism explaining the Apostles’ Creed continue these thoughts. Noting that God the Father provides what we need for our daily lives, Luther writes: “He does all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” Speaking about God the Son’s actions of redemption for us, Luther writes about our state: “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.” Describing how we became a believer, Luther writes about our need for God the Holy Spirit’s work: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

These chief samples from our Church’s teaching documents echo Jesus’ statement about humility and exaltation: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” We are directed away from placing any trust in ourselves. No reliance is to be set on our actions. There is no talk of seeking one’s own honor. Instead, the statements are made that we are given favor, freely receiving forgiveness, having our sins atoned for by Jesus. But that exaltation is not given to those who do not recognize their sins, who do not believe anything to be wrong with them, who do not know that their attempts to gain favor from the Lord will be in vain. At the end, those people who exalt themselves will be brought low.

It is also important, then, to show humility when speaking about the Lutheran Reformation itself. We can honor Luther and the other Reformers who were like Micah—“filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might”—in order to show the errors of the spiritual leaders of the time, those who were distorting the Lord’s Covenant and corrupting the faith of the people as the false prophets and Pharisees of old did. We honor Luther and the other Reformers, recognizing that the Lord’s work was done through them, so that people could be shown His favor by receiving the merits of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As we have that truth, we should be glad. But as we proclaim that truth, we should also show humility, not arrogance. Only by the Lord’s favor has this been given to us. Without His aid, we would be just as lost as those who know nothing of Him or His actions.

Additionally, we must consider the statements of Micah and Jesus that were spoken against the spiritual leaders of Israel. Their words are not just meant for the Lord’s people in ancient times. They must be applied to our churchbody, our congregation, and to us as individuals. Have we fallen into any similar errors? Do we treat people differently or give different teachings based on their donations? Do we place burdens on others, but not on ourselves? Have our acts of piety and worship become ways to please ourselves, show off our abilities, or feed our pride? If so, then we must repent and change. The hard words of judgment are spoken, so that we can be corrected, aligned by Jesus to His statement: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Lord has granted us a great gift by causing His Word to be spoken in its totality and purity to us. Through that, we have been made His people and brought the benefits that He has worked to achieve for us. We are given what Jesus earned by His dying and rising again for us. Recognizing our situation, that we are dependent upon His aid for all that is good, we should pray for that truth to be given constantly to us. The Psalmist’s words are quite appropriate: “Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling!” That divine light and truth brings us salvation, delivering the message of what the Lord has done for us, the object of our faith that our souls cling onto: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.”

Knowing your sin and imperfections, look to the Lord for your exaltation. Look to Him for deliverance and salvation in the beneficial actions that He has revealed in His Word. Ask for what today’s collect prayed for: “Merciful and gracious Lord, You cause Your Word to be proclaimed in every generation. Stir up our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that we may receive this proclamation with humility and finally be exalted at the coming of Your Son.” Have your hearts turned, so that you seek no exaltation in yourselves, but only in what Jesus has done for you by His death and resurrection. The Humbled and Exalted One declares to you: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” So He has promised, and so He will do for you.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

St. James of Jerusalem Sermon -- Psalm 133

October 23, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” The Psalmist’s words extol the goodness and pleasantness that unity brings, especially when it is present in a household. From our experiences, we know that such unity does not always exist. All of us have endured family conflicts, whether it be discord between spouses, struggles between parents and children, rivalries among siblings, or feuds with the in-laws. Those who haven’t witnessed that familial disunity need only live a few more years on earth in order to have their own first-hand experiences.

The Psalmist’s words can be extended beyond just the connections of bloodlines. The “brothers” referred to in Psalm 133 also speak about the members of the household of faith, the community of believers. Among those who are the Lord’s people, unity in faith, life, and purpose brings the same goodness and pleasantness as is seen in earthly families. And the disunity which sin brings, especially the sins of unbelief and failure to abide by the way of life set by the Lord for His people, causes great disruption. It is disruption and dissension that our churchbody, our district, and even our parish have experienced firsthand. But in the readings heard this morning, we are given to see that disruption and dissension among the Lord’s people can be traced back to the earliest days of the Church.

On this day that commemorates St. James, the Brother of Jesus, the Church hears about an incident that happened in Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus: “Coming to His hometown, [Jesus] taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, ‘Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And are not His brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all His sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at Him.” Jesus’ appearance in Nazareth did not bring unity among the Lord’s people there. Even when He brought them the true wisdom about the Lord and performed mighty works, the people refused to accept Him. Nazareth was divided by Jesus: “They took offense at Him.” There was no belief in Jesus and the message that He brought. All the goodness and pleasantness that Jesus could bring to Nazareth was not to be given because of their refusal to receive Him: “And He did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”

In response to Nazareth’s rejection of Him, Jesus declared: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and in his own household.” The proverb stands true: many outside of Nazareth accepted Jesus’ words and works and honored Him as the Messiah. But through the power of His resurrection, Jesus did bring some of His household to faith in Him as the Christ, the promised Redeemer. From His own household, some of Jesus’ brothers became significant disciples of His. That includes James, who would become the leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. Reconciled to Jesus, brought to belief in who his Brother truly is, James experienced the unity that the Psalmist extols: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” Not only did James experience it for himself, he would be an instrument for bringing the same reconciliation and unity to the Church in its earliest days.

This morning, you also heard about James’ actions at the Jerusalem Council. The disciples of Jesus were divided. Much had happened in the decade following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. The Acts of the Apostles records the important events: thousands of people in Jerusalem brought to faith in Jesus, persecution of believers that caused Jesus’ disciples to scatter from Jerusalem, the establishment of congregations in Caesarea and Antioch, new missions in Gentile cities. As these events had taken place, the Church had to deal with a divisive question: What must Gentile believers in Jesus do to be true disciples? Some had insisted that the Gentile believers adopt all the customs of the Old Testament people of the Lord. The 15th Chapter of Acts states at the beginning: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostle and the elders about this question.”

What would the Church do? It was experiencing the division and dissension opposite of its desire. So the Council in Jerusalem was held. And chief among the participants was James, the Brother of Jesus. No longer was he one of those who took offense at Jesus, but was a leader of those devoted to Him. At the Council, the question of the Gentile believers was discussed: “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” But would the Council follow the example of Nazareth? Would it take offense at the wisdom and mighty works that had been done among the Gentiles who had come to faith in Jesus? Would it take offense at the way of making disciples that Jesus outlined? Would it take offense at the new people who were brought into the household of faith? Would the Church be a band of brothers that dwelt in disunity and division?

James’ action at the Jerusalem Council brought the Church away from schism and split. You heard what James said: “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’” James points out that what was happening among the Gentiles was what the Lord had made known through the prophets. The royal house of David was being restored. It was rebuilt as Jesus, the Descendant of David, the Promised Christ, came. And the regeneration of the Lord’s people took place as they were brought to faith in Jesus, given the Lord’s name through baptism. That is what took place in the cities of Caesarea and Antioch, as well as the other places where Barnabas and Paul went.

So James sets out the action that would ensure the unity of faith that the Lord had graciously given to people of Jewish and Gentile ancestry: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” The Gentiles are not required to adopt all the customs of the Old Testament people; those burdens are not placed on them, even if Jewish believers would continue them. But the Gentiles are instructed to abide by a few rules, so that the faith of Jewish people in Jesus would not be hindered. In this way, the way to salvation is made clear: it is through the Lord giving people His Name and calling them to faith in Jesus’ words and works that they are saved, Jew and Gentile alike. That is what unites all the Lord’s people together.

This is the example of reconciliation that James brings to us in the Church today. The unity that the Psalmist extols is only possible as we are united in belief about the identity and actions of Jesus. If any of us take offense at Jesus, like the people of Nazareth did, we will not be in fellowship with Him. We will miss out on all that He provides through His death and resurrection. Faith in Jesus is essential to the unity that He creates between God and mankind. Acknowledgment of who Jesus is and what He has done for the salvation of sinners is a condicio sine qua non for the Church. Without that faith, there is no Church. That is why we confess the Creed each week, stating our belief in God’s identity and what He has accomplished for us.

But the Church is faced with challenges in this world beyond our confession of faith about Jesus’ person and work. At those times, our desire is to have the unity that should be found among the household of God’s people. We want the goodness and pleasantness that such unity brings among the brothers and sisters of Christ. So like James and the others at the Jerusalem Council did, we must engage those challenges by looking to what the Lord has declared about the matter. Then actions can be taken consistent with those divine statements, taking no offense at what our Lord has declared.

What took place at the Jerusalem Council is a good example of what divine wisdom brings. That wisdom is given through the Lord’s words, what He has spoken. Later, James would write about that wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given to him.” It is a petition that we must frequently offer. Relying on our own fallible minds, we would have nothing but folly that leads to sin and destruction. But God the Father knows that, and so He has provided us the greatest wisdom in His Son, the One of whom the people in Nazareth asked: “Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works?” As we receive what Jesus gives, we are made wise for salvation. Additionally, we in His Church are given wisdom to deal with the challenges we face, as long as we do not take offense at Jesus, but rely on what He has said and done. Believing that our Heavenly Father will give us wisdom, we ask Him for it. It will be given, as He directs us to what He has said and done, especially through His Son.

Receiving the same wisdom given through Jesus, we will follow James’ example of prayer and reconciliation. Likewise, we will be able to endure the trials that this world brings to us, whether as individual followers of Jesus or as His Church on earth. Relying on what is provided for us through Jesus, we will remain steadfastly faithful in Him, even unto death. We also will receive what His brother James received, as he was turned from taking offense at Jesus to being a devoted disciple: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” And then we will eternally dwell in unity with all of Jesus’ followers, all who have turned to God and who bear His Name. Jew and Gentile, they and we are made part of the David’s rebuilt household, the line established by Jesus, the Promised Messiah who abides in the celestial Zion: “For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

LSB Proper 24A -- Matthew 21:15-22

October 16, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Jesus said to them: ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’”

Standing in the Temple and teaching the people, Jesus is confronted with a question. The inquiry comes from the Pharisees, who have the Herodians—the political supporters of King Herod—in tow. They want to trap Jesus, to make Him say something that will lead to His downfall, whether it would come from the governmental authorities’ arresting Him or turning the people against Him: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus] in His talk.” The planned entangling would be through asking Jesus a question that was tricky.

The question posed to Jesus is about the law. Introducing the question, the Pharisees indicate that Jesus has the ability to answer authoritatively: “Teacher, we know that You are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and You do not care about anyone’s opinion, for Your not swayed by appearances.” Then the question is asked: “Tell us, then, what You think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” The question is loaded, since the questioners and audience have two different definitions of lawfulness. For the Pharisees, the law was the Torah, the instructions from the Lord and its accompanying tradition. For the Herodians, the law was the code that came from Rome that they had been appointed to enforce in Palestine. So will Jesus’ answer break the Divine Code or will it result in a treasonous statement against the emperor?

You heard how Jesus answered the question. First He has the questioners dig a coin out of their pockets: “Show Me the coin for the tax.” And when they produce a denarius, Jesus asks them about the coin: “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” After the people state that Caesar’s imprint is on the coin, Jesus tells them to give it back to him: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus’ statement shows that everything has its proper sphere and place. That is how the Lord designed it to be. He is the One who places us in relation to one another, who gives us our stations in life. And as He has so willed it, the Lord delegates His authority to fallible human beings, even unbelievers, when He places them in positions of oversight.

This is why Jesus can rightly answer the question, even when the Pharisees and the Herodians have two different definitions of lawfulness. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Can the Lord’s people pay a tax that indicates that they are subject to a pagan ruler and earthly citizens of a pagan empire? Yes, it is lawful, it is even right so to do, for the Lord has delegated His authority to that earthly ruler, so that order can be kept on earth. Payment of taxes helps to further that purpose: giving the denarius back to Caesar allows the emperor to build roads, raise an army, run a judicial system, even issue more coins. In his sphere of influence that the Lord has delegated to him, Caesar has legitimately stated that the coin has value and he has put his image and signature on it. So if he demands it back for the purpose of fulfilling his duties of exercising authority on earth, you have no right to hold it from him.

Key to understanding this answer is the knowledge about vocation or the stations in life. The emperor has this authority because he occupies an office where the Lord has placed His own authority. The Lord establishes governmental authority to help keep order in His world. Paying the tax recognizes that divine authority behind the emperor’s office. In fact, paying the tax fulfills the second part of Jesus’ answer: “[Render] to God the things that are God’s.” As the earthly authorities are recognized as people who carry the Lord’s authority and the laws that do not contradict God’s moral code are followed, obedience to the Lord is offered. The Fourth Commandment is kept out of fear and love of God Himself, as we do not despise or anger our parents or other authorities.

But the second part of Jesus’ answer is fulfilled in more ways than abiding by the Fourth Commandment. “[Render] to God the things that are God’s” is a directive that has many different aspects to it. What are the things that belong to God? That question has nearly infinite true answers. The Psalter tells us: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for He has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” You can think on the instructions given by the psalm prayed this morning: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due His name; bring an offering, and come into His courts! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth!” All glory, honor, and worship are God’s, since He is supreme over everything in the cosmos. True understanding and knowledge of the Lord’s identity belongs to Him, as He prophetically states to Cyrus: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God.”

But perhaps there is something that is more specific that should be considered when thinking about Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question. Remember how Jesus asked to be shown a coin, so that He could give an answer. And when the denarius was produced, what question did Jesus ask? “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Because it was Caesar’s likeness and inscription, the coin was Caesar’s, so it should be given back to him. Now think about this for a moment. What are the things that bear God’s “likeness and inscription”? What things have been given a value because the Lord has placed His image and signature on them? Answer those questions, and you will know some very specific items that should be rendered to God, just as the coins with Caesar’s image should be rendered to him.

What has God’s “likeness and inscription” on them? You do. That is so, because you are human and all humanity bears God’s likeness. Remember the great truth that the Creation Narrative in Genesis states about humanity: Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
 So God created man in His own image,
 in the image of God He created him;
 male and female He created them.” And this truth was repeated at the conclusion of the Flood Narrative in Genesis: “Whoever sheds the blood of man,
 by man shall his blood be shed, 
for God made man in His own image.”

But not only do you bear God’s likeness, you also have His inscription on you. That is what has been bestowed to you in Holy Baptism. In that act, the Lord inscribed His name upon you, calling you His own people. That calling is similar to what Cyrus received, but even greater. The Lord told Cyrus: “For the sake of My servant Jacob, and Israel My chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know Me.” But you have been called by name, and you know the Lord. That knowledge is what has been given to you when you were brought to faith, when you experienced the same change and conversion as happened to the Christians in Thessalonica: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that He has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivered us from the wrath to come.”

Faith in the Lord is given to you, as you possess both God’s “likeness and inscription”. You have been given the true knowledge of His identity. And that knowledge includes something very specific about the Person who answered the Pharisees’ question in the Temple. Before you were given the divine inscription in Holy Baptism, there was One who first bore God’s likeness and inscription. That Person is Jesus Himself—the One of the same substance of the Father, the One who is God incarnate, the One who is true God of true God. He had, has, and will ever possess that “likeness and inscription”. Your faith in the Lord includes knowing that Jesus who bore God’s “likeness and inscription” rendered Himself to God through His sacrificial death for your benefit. That is how Jesus “delivered us from the wrath to come.” That truth is what has been bestowed to you, since you have become the Lord’s own people, called by name by Him. That is part of the identity that is given to you through Holy Baptism, as you are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and are given the Lord’s name to bear.

Since you bear God’s “likeness and inscription,” you should render yourself to God. This is what an ancient teacher of the Church spoke of to a group of believers like you. Hilary of Poitiers wrote in the 4th Century: “We are also to render to God things that are God’s: that is, body and soul and will. The coin of Caesar is in gold, on which his image is stamped. But man is God’s coin, on which is the image of God. Therefore, give your money to Caesar; keep for God a blameless conscience.” It is an interesting comment about Jesus’ answer: Caesar’s coins are rendered back to Caesar, but you are God’s coins, God’s things which are to be rendered back to Him. And that is especially so when the Lord directs you with His commandments.

Jesus says: “[Render] to God the things that are God’s.” This is done through faith, as you live the new life given to you in Holy Baptism. The “rendering to God” is done as part of the new obedience that is to be seen in you. The “rendering to God” includes all the actions done in faithful worship of the Lord that only those who have His “likeness and inscription” on them can do. The Thessalonian Christians provide an example of this for you. Paul commends them for their actions: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Those phrases outline what you are called to render to God. The work of faith, the labor of love, the steadfastness of hope: these are manifested as the Holy Spirit dwells in you and brings forth the fruits of true belief.

The fruits of true belief are what you do as you strive to follow the new way of life that the Lord gave to you when He remade you in His likeness and inscribed His Name upon you. That new way of life is laid out in the Ten Commandments that describe the relationship that you are to have with the Lord and with one another. Believing in Him alone, calling upon His name in prayer, gladly hearing His words, honoring those who bear His authority, preserving the life that He creates, loving the spouse that He has joined to you, protecting the property He allows other to possess, defending the reputation of those He has placed around you, being content with His provision—these are all actions that spring up from the faith that is created in you. They are the actions that you do, as you render your entire lives—body, soul, and will—to God whose “likeness and inscription” you bear.

This is your baptismal identity and discipleship calling. It stems from what Jesus rendered to His Father—His atoning sacrifice that purchased salvation for you. So follow Jesus’ command: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Obey those whom the Lord has appointed as earthly authorities, even when it means filling out the IRS 1040 Forms in April. But also remember to “render to God the things that are God’s.” Be the people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells by connecting yourselves to Jesus’ gospel words. Then follow the new way of life of obedience that has been given to you. Learn from the Thessalonians’ example about how to do so. Like them, you bear the divine likeness and inscription that Holy Baptism brought you, so render yourselves to God again this day, this week, this year, this life.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

LSB Proper 23A Sermon -- Matthew 22:1-14

October 9, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“Again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come . . . .’”

What if God held a party and no one came? That is the situation Jesus describes in the Gospel Reading for today. He tells a parable, comparing the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son . . . .” This is a big event in our day, but it was even bigger in days gone by. Think of how much attention was paid to the Royal Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge held in England. Everyone wanted to know what William and Catherine would wear, but just as important was who would be invited to the parties after the ceremony. In fact, there were two receptions: that is how important their marriage was.

The Scriptures describe a wedding feast that God holds. You heard about that in the prophecy given by Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” That is the wedding feast that Jesus talks about with His parable. He says that this was beginning to take place with His presence in the world and would culminate with what He achieves by His death and resurrection.

Jesus was present to bring people to that banquet. But what does He say about that? The invitations went out for people to participate in the grand expression of divine generosity: “[The king] sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.” Jesus talks about the negative response that God received, but also God’s insistence in having people share in His generosity: “Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’” But instead of people marking their calendars, setting aside the day, making sure that they would be present to share in what God would give, they did the opposite: “They would not come.” Other matters occupied people’s minds: “They paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business. . . .” For some, there was more than refusal to attend, there was outright hostility toward God: “The rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.”

So what should the king do? What does God do? He makes the promise to hold a feast, and He will do so. He promises that people will join in it, and He will ensure that they will. But the participants will not be those who refuse the invitation. No, those who refuse His divine generosity will suffer His wrath, as Jesus describes: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” Yet after that, there is an action of giving that takes place: “Then [the king] said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.” That is what God does. His promised feast will take place, and there will be guests brought to it, invited by His servants to take their place at His tables.

What Jesus describes in His parable is God’s fulfillment of promises, even in the midst of rejection. The people of Israel refused the divine generosity. It started with the rejection of the faithful prophets who spoke the divine invitation and the faithful priests who brought the benefits of the divine covenant to the people. Such rejection went on for centuries, as the Israelites wandered off into idolatry, false religions, outright impiety or just plain apathy. Some even killed the prophets and priests. Even when the promised Messiah, Jesus Himself, stood amongst them, directing them to the salvation that God was providing and calling them to take their places at the wedding feast, they refused to do so.

Despite the rejection of Jesus by the Israelites, God’s wedding feast would still take place. The invitation went out for people to participate in what was achieved by Jesus’ death and resurrection. God had promised through His prophet: “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” So He was going to bring people in to receive this generosity. That is described in Jesus’ parable: “Then [the king] said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’” The servants were sent out to deliver the invitation to others. If the first invited guests didn’t want to participate, then so be it. But a group of guests were going to be at the king’s event held for his son.

Hear again what Jesus describes: “And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.” That is what has happened for your benefit. The second set of invitations was sent out, so that you could participate in the wedding feast. The invitations were not sent to just a particular group of people, but as the king said: “Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” The servants were not to concern themselves with anything about the people they encountered, but just to invite them to the banquet. The king’s instructions were simple: “If you see a person, invite him. If you see ten people, a hundred people, a thousand people, invite all of them. Just get them here to share in my generosity and happiness.”

That is the invitation that has reached your ears. The divine servants have gone out with the message: “Come and receive the generosity that God offers to you. Become one of His people, even His children, through Holy Baptism. Take hold of the salvation that is granted to you because His Son has died in your place and risen again. Receive the forgiveness of every sin that you have ever committed. Have a new way of life that is not just for this world, for the world to come. And not only are you promised to have a place in a new heaven and new earth, but God allows you to have part of what is promised now, as you gather to hear His words and to eat and drink with Him now.” This invitation has been given to you, not because you deserved it, not because you would bring some clout or prestige to the event, but because God wishes to share His generosity with you.

But what do you do with that invitation? Jesus doesn’t specify it in the parable, but the second set of invitations can be rejected just like the first. Remember again what He said about the first group of people invited: “But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.” That same response happens even now, as the divine servants are sent out the second time. Among those along the main roads called to the wedding feast are people who will not heed the invitation. They pay no attention. Or worse, they show hostility to the servants sent with the call to bring people to the banquet.

Such a response is not meant to be yours. But it can indeed happen. It is seen when individuals don’t participate in the gathering together of the Church, where God’s gifts are freely given. It takes place when other matters occupy the mind, so that the ways of the Lord are forgotten or neglected. The refusal of the invitation happens when people mock the words of the Gospel, that the Son of God lived perfectly, died sacrificially, and rose victoriously for the salvation of the world. There also is the rejection of the divine generosity when God’s servants are hated, abused, and even killed. Jesus’ parable warns you about this, so that you would not ignore the invitation, become too busy with worldly matters to act on the invitation, or assail the servants who carry the invitation. The warning is given to you, so that you would not be numbered among those who will suffer the terrible fate at the Last Day: “The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.”

Jesus’ parable warns you, so that you would not miss your place at the banquet that God will generously hold: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” That is what is promised for you. That is what the divine invitation extends to be yours. Despite your sins, despite your imperfections, despite your failures, the invitation has come to you. For many of you, it has come again and again and again. That is how generous God has been for you, the generosity that is shown in His divine, compassionate acts.

But one other warning is given for you at the tail end of Jesus’ parable: “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” This needs to be heard as well, since this tells you about the exclusivity of the divine invitation to share in the heavenly banquet. The invitation was sent out to all people, but its content is very specific. And Jesus wants you to know that well.

Just like the invitations you receive to wedding receptions or other festivities tell you about the location, the time, the dress, and other details, so does the divine invitation to salvation. The invitation that has been extended to you and the world includes the details about how to enter the kingdom of heaven. Entry into the kingdom of heaven depends on receiving the merits of Jesus’ work for you. That dependence includes the proper faith in who He is and what He has done. The wedding garment is the salvation that Jesus brings through His death and resurrection. Holy Baptism is how that wedding garment is given to you, made to be yours, as you are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness, joined to His death and resurrection. That dependence also includes continually receiving forgiveness, life, and salvation in the present day through Holy Absolution, Holy Preaching, Holy Supper, Holy Conversation of the people of God—for these are the means through which Jesus’ Gospel is applied again and again to you.

The great news of Jesus’ parable is this: God is holding a party and you will come. You have received all that is necessary to participate in the eternal wedding feast that God the Father holds for His Son, Jesus Christ. It has been provided for you. The invitation has been extended to you, delivered with everything that makes it possible for you to enter the kingdom of heaven. That is the extent of the divine generosity that God shows to you and to the entire world. So do not ignore it. Do not become apathetic about it. Do not hate those who deliver it. Instead, make that invitation the most precious of your possessions. Participate in the foretastes of the feast to come. Treasure all the signs of generosity that God shows to you in the days that lead up to the time of the eternal wedding feast. Then you will be welcomed by God Himself, and you will say: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

LSB Proper 22A Sermon -- Matthew 21:33-46

October 2, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“[Jesus said:] ‘When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to Him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Vineyards and tenants gone wild: that is the theme of the readings this week. The Lord speaks to His people who had forsaken their identity as His covenant people. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord speaks about His people, using a parable about a vineyard: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it. . . .” Everything was set up for the vineyard to be productive. The owner had chosen a good place for his vineyard to be planted. The land was properly prepared. He selected the choicest vines. All that was needed for a successful wine-making venture was there. It was a process that was repeated countless times in Israel and all over the Mediterranean region.

Yet, there was a problem: “And he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” Instead of finding the fine grapes that the choicest vines should have produced, the owner sees all sorts of wild grapes growing on the vines. These are not what he expected! No, he wants the grapes that his choice vines should bring forth. The owner asks the people to comment: “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” So what was wrong? The vineyard had gone wild: it had incorporated other species into it. Cross-pollination had taken place, so that wild grapes were its fruit. Its identity as a vineyard that produces good grapes had been forsaken.

Isaiah mentions whom He is describing with this parable: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold an outcry!” This parable is meant to shock the Israelites, especially its rulers, into changing their behavior, to turn from the abandoning of their identity as the Lord’s covenant people and return to Him. They had been brought out of Egypt, made into a nation, given a homeland—all actions done by the Lord for their benefit. But their sins, from the breaking of the Lord’s Law concerning behavior towards the neighbor to the disastrous adoption of foreign worship and religions, became the reason for the Lord’s punishment of Israel.

Like Isaiah of old, Jesus also tells a parable about a vineyard. He does so to show the error of the chief priests and elders: “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” The storyline is straightforward. Nothing is odd about it. That’s the way large farming operations work. Substitute farm for vineyard, silo for winepress, and grain for fruit, and the story would sound just like what the people in my former parishes in Iowa did every year.

But the storyline changes rapidly from normal to unusual: “And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” The owner’s servants go to collect the harvest fruit from the tenants and they get assaulted, beaten, and killed. This is an arrangement that has gone horribly wrong! The tenants have abandoned their identity as the people who are contracted with the owner: their agreement was to oversee the working of the vineyard and to send the harvest fruits to the owner. But when that contract was to reach its fulfillment, they refuse to do so. They will not abide by the terms of the agreement.

Yet, that is not the end of the storyline. No, Jesus puts something else in it: “Finally [the owner] sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Now everything has gone off the tracks. Beating and killing servants was an outrage, but to actually kill the son who has the rightful possession of the vineyard? Who in their right mind would do that? This is what completely cuts off the tenants from the owner. Here is the total forsaking of their connection to the owner. They refuse to be under his authority anymore, but want to be the owners of the vineyard themselves. And for that action, they receive punishment.

In both parables—the wildness of the vineyard and the wildness of the vineyard tenants—the owner metes out punishment. Isaiah described the owner’s reaction: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.” The hearers’ response to Jesus’ question tells the fate of the tenants who killed the owner’s servants and son: “[The owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” So it was for the ancient Israelites and for the chief priests and elders. The Lord removed His protection from the nation of Israel and Judah and both were overrun by Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. The Lord took away the oversight of His people from the chief priests and elders who murdered Jesus; in their place, the apostles were appointed to oversee the Lord’s people. The vineyard and the tenants who had forsaken their identities are forsaken by the owner.

But these words of judgment do not simply describe past events. No, they are meant for you to hear, for they speak about what happens whenever people abandon the Lord’s covenant with them. The parables provide warning for pastor and pew-sitter alike: for the judgment is spoken against the tenants, just as it is spoken against the vines themselves. Their sins are different, but the result is the same. Both the tenants and the vines went wild, losing their identity as the Lord’s people. Their forsaking Him was answered by His forsaking of them, and that has eternal consequences!

The great sin that these parables warn you about becomes clear. All the wild grapes produced by the vineyard—worshiping false gods, adopting the piety of other belief systems, refusing to live as the Lord dictates, reveling in evil, coveting roles that have not been given, rebelling against the Lord’s authority, ignoring and assailing those who speak for the Lord—they are all symptomatic of the great sin of unbelief and apostasy. They take place when people who had been given the identity as the Lord’s people forsake that identity. There is a refusal of the way of life that the Lord sets for His people. Instead of abiding by the covenant that He has made with them, the people act contrary to it.

So what is the answer, the remedy to this? What will deliver the vineyard and the tenants from their wretched fates? It is obvious that continuing in their current behaviors will lead to destruction. So a change in that is needed. But even that is not enough. No, there needs to be something done that comes from outside the vineyard and the tenants themselves, a reception of actions done for them. This is what Paul mentions in his writing: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh I have more. . . . But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” What Paul did would not bring him salvation; it would not bring the true gain. No, he needed something from outside himself: “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

The deliverance needed is what Jesus provides. The problem with the vineyard and the tenants is their forsaking of the identity given to them. That identity needs to be restored, given back. It is granted through faith in Jesus as the Christ, faith that trusts who Jesus is and what He has done. But only the Lord can create that faith by planting His word in the hearts and minds of people. The knowledge of Christ Jesus as Lord is something bestowed to people, not produced by people. To use the vineyard imagery, what needs to happen is the owner to take action—to replant that vine, to rehire tenants.

And here today’s Psalm is very helpful. When the people of Israel understood what was happening to them, as the Lord’s protection was removed from them because of their abandoning the covenant and forsaking their identity as the Lord’s people, the cry of repentance came from them: “Restore us, O God of hosts, let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” The vineyard was in disarray, torn up because of the Lord’s judgment against it. The words of the psalm depict the proper reaction to the divine judgment that came from the people: “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that Your right hand planted, and for the son whom You made strong for Yourself. They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of Your face!”

The plea is for divine action, divine favor. It is not based on trust in what the people had done. No, their record of actions rightly deserved judgment; there is nothing to take confidence in. Rather, the plea for divine action is based upon the proper understanding about how someone becomes connected to the Lord: that connection is what He chooses to grant them; that identity is given by His work. The psalm’s words acknowledge that: “But let Your hand be on the man of Your right hand, the son of man whom You have made strong for Yourself!” Receiving what the Lord does, restoration of the identity will take place: “Then we shall not turn back from You; give us life, and we will call upon Your name!”

This is what you pray for in your repentance. There is a reminder that the Lord has had made you His people. His name that was placed on you is spoken again: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Through baptism, the identity of belonging to Him was given. That identity came with a way of life. But as you have failed to abide by that way of life, you produced the wild grapes instead of the good grapes. Such action brings divine judgment. But you are made to understand and know that this judgment is rightly spoken against you. So you call out for a restoration of your identity as the Lord’s people, the choice vines that produce the expected harvest: “Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.” Then as the forgiving words of Jesus’ Gospel are spoken to you—the words that proclaim His death and resurrection for your salvation, the acts that accomplish everlasting life for sinners—that vine is replanted, the identity of being the Lord’s people is restored, life is given again.

So as you consider these two parables about vineyards and tenants gone wild, know that they speak judgment against the sin of abandoning and forsaking the identity that the Lord gives to you. But know also that He has the ability and desire to restore that identity to you, along with all the benefits it brings. Speak the words of the psalm that call for divine action: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” Knowing and admitting your own sins and failures, but also believing who Jesus is and what He has done for you, His covenant is renewed with you. You are called His people. You are replanted as the choice vines that produce the good grapes of faithful action that the Lord desires to find. And when the day of harvest comes, you will be gathered up to be with Him for eternity.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.