Beginning on December 1, 2013, I have moved the "Minister of Mechanicsburg" blog to a new address:
If you wish to continue reading sermon texts or other writings, look for them there.
If you have bookmarked this page, it would be helpful to change your bookmark to the new address.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
November 27, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.”
Once again, the Lord has brought us an opportunity to reflect on the generosity that He has shown to us in providing for our earthly needs. That is the reason that we gather together for a Day of Thanksgiving. We render our thanks in response to what has been given to us from the Lord. In doing so, we take our place in the long line of the Lord’s people who have done so.
The First Reading that you heard gave instructions for how the Lord’s people were to offer their thanks. Some of the fruit and crops obtained from the ground were to be offered to Him. Each Israelite was to bring a basket of their firstfruits to the Lord’s altar. Then there was a little liturgy that they would follow: the giving of the basket to the priest, followed by the recitation of a thanksgiving address. In that statement, the Israelites remembered their history, how the Lord had taken Abraham out of his homeland, raised up a great population in Egypt despite their being enslaved, and brought them to their land. And the last statement confessed the truth about why they had anything to bring to that altar: “And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.”
That phrase spoken by the Israelites during the harvest time worship acknowledged their dependence upon the Lord. It revealed the Lord’s providential nature. In those words are the seeds of truth about the Lord’s identity, what future believers would also confess. The same sentiment is spoken by the Psalmist: “You visit the earth and water it; You greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; You provide their grain, for so You have prepared it.” That phrase even provides a source for what Luther would write in the Small Catechism: “He also gives me food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.”
How different do those prescribed actions in the Old Testament stand in contrast with the man in Jesus’ parable! You heard Him tell the story: “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” In that little liturgy, there was nothing attributed to the Lord, no acknowledgement about the actual source of the man’s harvest. But there were plenty of baskets of grain brought and offered up to the rich man. They filled his newly-built barns.
So what does Jesus say about this man? When his life is brought to an end, the rich man’s folly is revealed: “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” And the last statement of Jesus’ teaching on this matter confesses the truth about such people: “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
The contrast between the faithful worshiper and the rich man is shown. It is a matter of the heart. It is a matter of belief. Does the individual have an understanding of what is taking place in this world, even in the provision of earthly goods? The one who does know how the Lord is behind the whole system will bring the harvest gifts in the basket and offer them in thanksgiving. The offering is an act of faith. It is a form of worship. It is a God-pleasing work.
But this is not an archaic act. Yes, there have been some changes in circumstance. You have not been brought to Canaan, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” But the rest of what the Israelite worshipers said is true. As you have been baptized into Christ and given faith in Him, you have become a spiritual descendant of Abraham. The Exodus story is now part of your heritage. You have been personally delivered by the Lord by His great deeds of death and resurrection for your sake. And the Lord’s provision of earthly goods to you continues to this day. You are a recipient of the Lord’s graciousness and generosity. So like the Israelites of old, you are led to bring forth the baskets of what you have received and offer them at the Lord’s altar, saying: “And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.” This is an act of faith and form of worship and God-pleasing work that you perform.
In the Second Reading, you heard more descriptions about this giving. The famous, often-quoted verse from Paul’s pen was read: “Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” That verse is familiar to you, since it has appeared on offering envelopes and pledge cards for decades, if not centuries. And so you go try to figure out in your mind what can be given and write down the number or fill out the checks and in the baskets they go.
But this is not quite what Paul is getting at with that statement. Instead, he is showing you and all who have heard this text what happens behind the curtains in the matter of giving. He is confessing the same truth about the Lord as that harvest liturgy did in ancient Israel. And that is seen in the statements that follow the matter of “cheerful giving”: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written: ‘He has distributed freely, He has given to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.’ He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints, but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.”
The apostle is confirming the fact that the Lord provides for you. He grants you what you need; your offerings are a confession of faith that this is so. But he also introduces another aspect of what happens when you do so: the Lord grants things to you as you make your offerings to Him. This is not to say that if you put a $10,000 check in the plate, the Lord will give you $100,000 in the next week or month. Such a statement would be a perversion of what the apostle is saying, and if you heard such things from this pulpit, there should be an immediate call to the District Office, if not to the Attorney General. But there is a truth that is revealed: though you are giving sacrificially, you also are receiving. The Lord’s provision to you actually continues as you are providing for other people through your offerings: your good works increase, the harvest of your righteousness increases, your richness toward God increases.
That truth is a confounding thing to the earthly mind. When hearing about the rich man in Jesus’ parable and the full barns, it would seem that his actions are the way to obtain and maintain riches. But the apostle’s words are just the opposite: “You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity.” You have been given to know what is actually the case. True riches come from the acts of faith that recognize the truth about the Lord’s identity—that He has given you all good things, both temporal and eternal, physical and spiritual. Those acts of faith include the offerings that you present before the Lord’s altar, even the ones that are placed in the brass baskets that will be passed through the pews. Let that be remembered again this year, especially on this day when we recognize the Lord’s provision to us.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
November 24, 2013 - Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA
“And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at Him, saying, ‘He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His Chosen One!’ The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up and offering Him sour wine and saying, ‘If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!’”
This Sunday brings the Church Year to its close. It’s somewhat like New Year’s Eve. But unlike the end of the calendar year, the focus of this day is not on restarting on January 1. Instead, the Church is presented with the message of the end of all earthly things, but the beginning of a new era, the life of the world to come. As part of that message, those who hear the Scripture Readings are led to consider the Kingship of Christ, His dominion over all things in heaven and on earth, a dominion that will be seen fully in the next age.
But prior to discussing the Kingship of Christ at the last day and in eternity, there needs to be an examination of what His kingship looked like here on earth. There is a deep contrast between the two. That contrast is seen in the Scripture Readings for today. This contrast is necessary. And the reason for its existence must be considered. It must be, because the contrast between the way Christ’s kingship looked here on earth and how it will be in eternity has everything to do with the way that salvation comes to you.
After hearing the Gospel Reading for today, there was little in it that would be labeled majestic. The crucifixion of a man for rebellion is anything but majestic. But that is what you heard was happening to Jesus. Jesus was hanging naked in shame for all to see. He was slowly suffocating in the throes of pain. He was ridiculed and reviled by those who would pass by and watch the gruesome spectacle. Even the government piles on, posting a sign above Jesus’ head: “This is the King of the Jews.” With that sign, Pilate is basically asking the people of Jerusalem: “Do you want to see your king? Well there He is. Behold the Man and see if you still dare to claim Him as your leader.”
That depiction of a crucified man is nothing that anyone would normally identify as their hope, as their leader, as their king. And yet, you will confess that you believe in “Jesus Christ, [God’s] only Son, our Lord.” You claim that this Man who was pinned to a crossbeam and left to die suspended above a garbage heap is your Lord, your King. Not only do you say that He is your monarch, but you have ascribed all things majestic to Him: “Power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and blessing and glory are His.”
It seems implausible for you to do so. Throughout Jesus’ earthly life, there was little that would lead anyone to deem Him as royal. In a matter of weeks as the new Church Year begins, you will recall His birth in a stable. Later you will hear how His own villagers rejected Him. Even after miracles would show His power and ability, Jesus would prohibit the crowds from making Him king. And in the great crescendo of His earthly life, you will see Jesus enter Jerusalem on a magnificent steed of a donkey colt. All this leading up to the Friday afternoon of ignominious death outside the capital of Judea.
“This is the King of the Jews?” If so, who would want Him? That is the reaction that the world gives to your claims. It is the reaction that you actually have in your own sinfulness. Who wants a King like that? Who wants a Monarch of Modesty, a Prince of Poverty, a Lord of Limitation? And when that same modesty, poverty, humility is demanded of you, while those who don’t follow Jesus enjoy greatness, the same complaints are made that the prophet Malachi spoke of: "It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape."
The eyes of the world see the crucified Jesus. Seeing that pitiful spectacle leads to the conclusion: “It is vain to serve and follow Him.” Indeed it is vain, worthless, and pointless to follow a man whose life leads to crucifixion and whose path leads to powerlessness. And yet, you follow. You follow that Man and claim Him as King. You do so, not of compulsion, but voluntarily. You freely travel the path of discipleship, even with all its drawbacks. You look at the Crucified Christ and do not scoff at Him or mock Him, but unquestionably point to Him as your Lord.
But how can you do so? How can you confess the opposite of what your senses behold? You do so as there is trust what has been revealed, not what you apprehend by sight. As the apostle puts it: “We walk by faith, not by sight.” By faith, you lay claim to Jesus as Lord. That is, you lay claim to the whole Jesus as Lord. For what has been revealed did not end with the events of Good Friday. No, you have been told much more, much more about that Jesus who was crucified.
You heard that more about the identity of the crucified Jesus in the Scripture Readings for this day. It was declared to you in today’s Epistle Reading. The suspended, hanging Jesus is the Lord of all, because there was purpose in His death, something great achieved by it. That is what Paul explains to you: “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.”
The fullness of God dwelled in a Man? God reconciled heaven and earth to Himself through that Man’s crucifixion? Peace is given through violent death? The claims seem as outlandish as claiming a condemned criminal as king. But that reality is not apprehended by your sense or reason. It must be revealed and then believed by faith. And that has happened for you. That is why you can hear the Gospel account this morning and say that the inscription above Jesus’ head was not satirical, but a statement of truth: “This is the King of the Jews.” And you turn those insults of the scoffers and mockers into ascriptions of praise. You don’t ridicule Jesus by calling for Him to save Himself, but stare in awe and wonder as His giving Himself in sacrifice brings us salvation.
As mentioned earlier, the theme of this day is the contrast between Christ’s earthly kingship and His eternal majesty. His kingship here on earth was marked by humility and service. It claimed no military prowess or international prestige or financial fortune. As Jesus would reply to Pilate: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” It can’t be measured in those terms. It isn’t meant for this age. No, it is eternal and everlasting, a majesty hidden for now, but will be revealed for all to see.
That is what your faith lays hold of, what your discipleship points us toward. You are not caught up in the things of this world, but look forward to the life of the world to come. You identify yourselves as Jesus’ subjects, confessing what has been revealed to you: “[The Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Even in the midst of this humbleness, this group of eighty or so gathered around the words of Jesus that the world considers simple and His sacraments that the world mocks as powerless, you make that claim. For you no longer measure everything by sense, but by faith. You see the Crucified and Risen Jesus and point to Him as your Lord.
So you make your confession on this day. With the apostle Paul, you say: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent.”
By the Spirit, you say: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” And in that confession is your salvation. So it has been revealed to you, and so you believe. May you remain firm in that confession, despite whatever the world may say and whatever your eyes may see. Look always at that Crucified Jesus as the Lord of Lords, always fearing Him and esteeming His name--the identity revealed in the Scriptures. Come with the request to be remembered when He comes into His eternal kingdom. And when the Crucified and Risen Jesus returns in glory, He will say to you: “Truly, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
November 17, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending!
The opening lyrics from the medieval hymn Dies Irae echo the statements heard in the Scripture Readings for today, the second-last Sunday in the Church Year. Malachi predicts a day of wrath: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” Jesus foretells strange happenings: “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” Both statements disclose what will happen as this age is brought to an end.
But these are not the only declarations made concerning the end of this age. No, they stand as part of a longer series of texts strung through the canon. A coming day of judgment is mentioned in most of the prophetic books. The gospels record Jesus’ teaching that confirms that this will take place, and that He is involved in it. And the apostolic letters written to the Church prepare believers for this day to come. The Lord desires that His people be totally aware of what He will do. He does not leave it as a surprising matter.
But the disclosure of this impending day of doom is not only a matter of scaring people straight. It can have that effect, and rightly so. The curbing function of the Lord’s Law has its place. If hearing about eternal, divine wrath will keep you or anyone else from participating in actions that stand in opposition to the Lord’s moral teaching, well and good! There are times when the stick or crop are good instruments to use. They have their rightful place. Obedience to the Commandments can be done out of fear of the Lord, as the Small Catechism explanations remind us.
However, there is another reason why the Lord is very clear about what will take place at the end of the age. The Lord’s declarations point out how you and all His people can anticipate His promises coming to fulfillment. The actions predicted are consistent with the Lord’s character as He has revealed it in the Scriptures. The Lord speaks of Himself as just and supreme. He states that His will is going to be actualized; what He desires is going to take place. He says that His opponents and adversaries will not prevail. The Lord will act to make this so, and that is an essential part of the impending day of wrath.
This is behind the statement that the Lord gave through the prophet Malachi. His people had believed that the Lord’s ways were good and right. They had striven to follow them. But when they would look at how the unrighteous were prevailing and successful, then doubt set in. Why bother with following the Lord? Why travel the hard road, if it doesn’t really matter? Is it worth it? But to those questions, the Lord gives His answer: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.”
With those words, the Lord shows that He has seen the same things as His people. He is aware of their plight. He knows how the arrogant and evildoers seem to have everything go positively. Their actions seem to be unchecked. But it shall not be so forever. The Lord guarantees an end to that situation. But He goes further. For His people, something even better is promised: “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” For those harassed and harried people who had remembered the Lord’s Law, who had been devoted to His ways, who had trusted in His Covenant promises, there is a salvation in that day of wrath that will come.
The same theme is found in Jesus’ words. Throughout His eschatological discourse in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that the Last Day can be anticipated by His followers. They need not fear it. Why? Not because the events will be wonderful. Not because earthquakes and pestilences and famines and wars are pleasant experiences. No, none of Jesus’ followers are actually wanting such events to take place, even though they will happen. But it’s what this day of wrath ushers in that makes it an anticipated day: “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It’s why the Psalter conveys a mood of joy with its lyrics: “Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”
Divine redemption is drawing near. It rises like the sun with righteousness in its wings. That is what is brought in that Last Day. The Lord has declared that it will be so. For those who belong to Him, those who fear His name, those who have received the benefit of His work, that day is a time of salvation. The new heaven and new earth that the Lord establishes are meant for them. They are ushered in when the Son of Man comes in all His power and glory. His people will have a place in that new age.
Jesus wants you to have your heads up when He returns. But this is not simply a wish that He has; it is what He has worked for you to experience. For the Son of Man who speaks about Himself coming with power and glory has come to this earth before. But that first time He wasn’t wrapped up in majesty. He was veiled in humility. He suffered as an obedient servant, experiencing the wrath of God as your substitute. Jesus was a scapegoat, a propitiation, an offering. And in His crucifixion, the same divine wrath that burned like a oven was poured out on Him. Why? So that the Lord would be trustworthy in what He says: sinfulness and unrighteousness do not go left unchecked, but are dealt with.
But that same Jesus also came out of the grave, rising like the sun, springing with everlasting life. He came with healing in His wings for you. It is the reason for the lyrics of praise offered in the Psalter: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things! His right hand and His holy arm have worked salvation for Him. The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.” That salvation has been made known to you. It has been disclosed in the preaching of Jesus’ works. And it has been delivered to you through His words of promise in Baptism, Absolution, and Supper.
The Dies Irae began with foreboding lyrics. But it also includes statements that testify to the work that Jesus has done and the desire to receive its benefits:
Think, kind Jesus!–my salvation
Caused Thy wondrous Incarnation;
Leave me not to reprobation!
Faint and weary, Thou hast sought me,
On the Cross of suffering bought me.
Shall such grace be vainly brought me?
Jesus will not forget what He has done for you. His grace is not given vainly. He will bring the everlasting results of His work to you on that day when He comes in glory. Jesus’ statements of vindication and acquittal will not pass away, just as He promises: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Jesus’ eternal words declare you to be His people, His saints, His redeemed. They speak forgiveness, life, and salvation to you. They guarantee you a place in His kingdom and a dwelling place in His Father’s house.
That is what transforms the Last Day into a time for you to anticipate and not fear. Jesus gives you the command: “But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” The strength to stand before the Son of Man when He returns has been given to you. It isn’t found in the depth of your being or in the foundation of your souls. It’s not in your efforts. But it comes from Jesus Himself and is brought to you by His words of promise. Receiving His forgiveness, His righteousness, His redemption, you will be able to escape all that will take place and stand before Him. So when that Last Day comes, you will be able to do what His eternal words exhort: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
November 10, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him.”
In today’s Gospel reading, you are allowed to witness one of the oddest exchanges between Jesus and a set of His opponents, the Sadducees. The temple staff and Jesus have a debate about the resurrection of the dead. As you heard, the Sadducees want to test what Jesus teaches, and they pick an obscure topic: “Will there be marriage in heaven? Will a husband and wife be married in the afterlife?” Actually, they don’t just ask that, they ask about a woman who had been married seven times: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”
It’s a bit of a sticky wicket, this question of the Sadducees. Or at least, they believed it to be so. They thought that Jesus wouldn’t be able to answer this question to anyone’s satisfaction, that Jesus would be discredited by what He said. As the Gospel Writer mentioned, the Sadducees were “those who deny that there is a resurrection.” This is more than just a footnote; it’s important to realize that these opponents of Jesus were asking a question that they believed was purely hypothetical. To them, it didn’t matter, because they didn’t believe there was any resurrection at all. And if that were so, then the whole matter is moot.
But there were others present who did care, who had a horse in the race, so to speak. They were mentioned at the very end of the Gospel Reading: “the scribes” who reply to what Jesus says. These scribes, these experts in the law and Scriptures, mostly believed that there was eternal life. More importantly, they were concerned with preserving the purity of the Law of Moses. And the hypothetical situation that the Sadducees posed has everything to do with the laws and rules of marriage that the Lord gave to the people of Israel.
So the trap is laid for Jesus. But Jesus eludes it. He doesn’t do so by ignoring the question. He doesn’t call down lightning from heaven to strike dead the questioners. No, Jesus answers by asking the proper question, by highlighting what is really important for the people to know and believe. Jesus points out the flaw in the Sadducees question and their lack of belief in life everlasting: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
In that multi-part sentence, Jesus declares that marriage is something that only applies here in this life, it is a divine institution meant for this age. But He also mentions that there is a resurrection from the dead, that there is a life of the world to come: “For they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” This is important to note, because Jesus is making a claim to two types of authority or power that the Lord has—the power of this temporal world and the power of the eternal world.
This is seen in Jesus’ further discussion on the topic, once He gets past the “whose wife will the woman be” question. After defusing the trap, hypothetical question, Jesus makes a statement about the Lord and the resurrection: “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him.” Out of this strange discussion over marriage in heaven, Jesus is able to make a statement of truth about the Lord’s identity and the everlasting life that His people will receive.
That’s where this episode in Christ’s life finds relevance in your situation. The whole marriage in eternity question really isn’t the important part. In many ways, it’s similar to the questions that children and even some of us ask from time to time: Will our pets go to heaven with us? Will we recognize our relatives in paradise? Will we be divided into students/teachers or employees/bosses or congregants/ministers in life everlasting? All of them are interesting questions, even if they are a bit obscure and theoretical. But ultimately, they are of little importance, because they are centered on things of this world that will pass away. They do not concern what is yet to come and will remain for eternity.
But that there won’t be marriage in heaven isn’t the main lesson that Jesus wants you or any of His disciples to come away with from this incident. His answer is meant to refocus people on eternal things. Much more important are His statements about the truth of the life of the world to come, of the resurrection of the dead, of the eternal nature and authority of God Himself. When faced with people who denied that there is any resurrection, Jesus points out their error. He confirms that there will be people who “cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”
Now that is very relevant to you today. Just like the Sadducees of old, there still are people who don’t believe in anything that has to do with life everlasting. Instead, they believe that the only thing that matters is what happens here on earth. And there is the danger for you to fall into that category. The hazard is becoming so absorbed in the matters of this life, that the eternal needs are forgotten or not even considered. How often does that happen in what you think, do, and say?
Even more hazardous is the potential of doubting the promises that the Lord makes to you when there are all sorts of opposition and affliction in your daily lives. That sort of doubt is very common as you witness the falling apart of earthly order or the lack of righteousness in society or the suffering that war and disease causes in nation, in families, or in your own lives. When you see the things of this world occupying all your time and energy, and then disintegrating around you, that’s when the questions arise. Will all the promises that Christ has made to His people actually come true? How often does that happen?
And yet, Jesus’ discussion that you heard this morning refocuses hearts, minds, and souls on what is true, significant, and powerful: “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” To the people who belong to this age, the things of the world are the most important and valuable. It’s all that is meant for them, all they can look forward to.
But there are people worthy of a place in eternity, who aren’t bound to just the things of this world and this age. Jesus identifies them: “[Those who] cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” And that is what you are, what you are called and meant to be. For you are not the children of this world, you are “sons of the resurrection.” Being “sons of the resurrection” is your identity, because the Lord has elected to give it to you: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this He called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He has chosen to make you “the sons of God.” That’s the identity handed to you through your adoption by Holy Baptism, the regeneration to an everlasting life.
It’s the identity that Jesus can give to you, because He isn’t the God of the dead; He has died and has risen again to make everlasting life yours. It’s an identity the Lord can give to you; He isn’t simply the Creator of this world but will bring a new heaven and new earth into existence. As Jesus puts it: “[Moses] calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him.” The Lord is the God of the Living. His reign and authority is wrapped up with and holds the power of life. Just like the Creed confesses, He is “the Lord and Giver of life” who ushers in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
That “God of the living” is your Father. And when He chooses you to be His children, resurrection is the inheritance that you are promised. It’s what you look forward to. It’s what you can absorb yourselves with. For you who have that promised inheritance, the central issue isn’t whether there will be marriage or any other temporal institution in heaven. No, your concentration is on how Jesus provides you forgiveness, life, and salvation; how He makes you “sons of God, sons of the resurrection” by His actions done right here and now; how you are connected to Jesus’ own death and resurrection, making them yours.
This episode in Jesus’ life is meant to focus that concentration on the great promise and gift that He has extended to you. Out of that strange, trap question of the Sadducees, you see Jesus outline what is really significant, what is yet to come. When you receive those words of eternal life, your hearts, souls, and minds are moved away from things that only endure for this age. And instead, you can be absorbed with the treasures that have been designated to be yours for eternity. This is how He answers the petition made in the Collect of the Day: “Grant us the fullness of Your grace to lay hold of Your promises and live forever in Your presence.”
So it is true that Jesus had “spoken well,” as the scribe at the end of the Gospel Reading said. Jesus did speak well in ancient Palestine. But more importantly, He speaks well to address your needs of body and soul—not ignoring them, but bringing you the solution that lasts for all time. This is what the “God of the living” does for you today and for all eternity, for all of you have truly been made alive.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Monday, November 4, 2013
November 3, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’”
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he….” So starts the famous children’s song. Countless people have sung it, from preschools to church camps to Sunday School. And it does an admirable job conveying the details of the Gospel Reading for today. But there is a bit of an issue with the song. You’ve heard it; you’ve sung it; you may have even tried climbing an imaginary tree. So what detail do you remember about Zacchaeus? He’s small. He’s a wee little man. But that’s not really the Gospel Writer’s main description of this man of Jericho. This event is not just about a short guy going up into a tree to see Jesus.
The description about Zacchaeus is a bit more sinister. “Zacchaeus was a rich, cheating man, and a rich, cheating man was he….” That’s what the Gospel Writer tells you: “[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector and was rich.” This is how Zacchaeus is introduced to the world. He’s a rich man. He’s an important man, a major collaborator with the Roman government, holding and overseeing the tax collection franchises based in Jericho. That description reveals the problem with Zacchaeus: it’s not his lack of height; it’s his lack of integrity and character. Zacchaeus’ way of life has shown him to be anything but a son of Abraham, anything but one of the Lord’s Covenant People.
You’ve heard other descriptions of similar people in the Old Testament Reading for this morning. They were involved in similar enterprises as Zacchaeus—cheating, extorting, swindling, oppressing. They had forsaken their identity as the Lord’s Covenant People. It was so bad that the prophet Isaiah came along and called them and their metropolis of Jerusalem “Sin City”: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” And the prophet read out the statement of judgment against them: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
The problems of the people needed to be corrected. Their devotion to false gods had to come to an end. Their open rebellion against the Lord’s Law had to be put down. Their hearts, minds, and souls had to be changed. And so the Lord exhorts them to do so: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” With those words, the people of Jerusalem are summoned back to their identity, the status of being the holy nation that the Lord had established through His work for them.
The same divine summons is what Zacchaeus receives. It came to Zacchaeus, as he heard of Jesus and His work. And that is what drives him to go where Jesus would be found: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way.” This rich, cheating man was going to see Jesus. And when the Lord summons Him, he welcomes Jesus with great exuberance: “And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully.”
The change in Zacchaeus had happened. He was being transformed by Jesus’ words, by Jesus’ welcome, by Jesus’ work. The old way of life was being set aside. No more would Zacchaeus be known as an oppressor. No more was he a lover of money. This rich, cheating man was now devoted to the way of life that Jesus had established for Him: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’”
Zacchaeus’ belief in Jesus brought about this great change. It moves him from being marked by unholiness to righteousness. No longer can he keep what he had taken wrongly. No longer can he have mammon as his god. His scarlet sins and crimson crimes were being purged from him. Now Zacchaeus is following in the way of life that the Lord had established. And what does Jesus say about it? “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” Jesus confirms Zacchaeus’ identity as one of the Covenant People. He affirms that Zacchaeus had received the salvation that He had come to bring to the earth. The lost was found. The prodigal had returned. The rebel was reconciled.
But what happened in Jericho is not just for ancient people in long past eras. No, what took place there is how sainthood is given, even now. This transformation of Zacchaeus happens over and over again. There is the initial giving of an identity of being one of the Lord’s people. That is granted in the marking of you in Holy Baptism. With that act, the Lord claims you as one of His own. He gives you a place in His kingdom. He designates you as “a son of Abraham.” Even more, He declares you to be His child. And with that comes great promises, along with an entire way of life.
So what happens to that? Remember, the people of Jerusalem who were called “Sodom and Gomorrah” by the prophet once had that identity given to them. Wee, little Zacchaeus had possessed that same identity. But their devotion turned away from the Lord. Their actions revealed a desire for unvirtuous living, for what the Lord had proscribed. And the same occurs among you. Whether on a large scale or small, the scarlet sins and crimson crimes are found in your lives.
But you all have received the divine summons away from that. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He came to seek and save you. And His exhortation comes to you: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Jesus calls you to Himself and says, “I must be present with you. I must give My Spirit to abide with you.”
With those words of Jesus, He summons you to be where He is found. He brings you into His presence, so that your status is restored as you joyfully welcome Him. Jesus brings His forgiveness and restoration to you and says: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
But what Jesus says is not a static declaration of what has happened. The living word of Jesus transforms and changes those who receive it. There is activity to move you from being marked by unholiness to righteousness, even if it seems to be in fits and starts. But that divine activity does have effect in you. Just as Zacchaeus could not keep the profits of his cheating and could not remain a devotee of mammon, so you also cannot continuously abide in your sinful ways or be devoted to what is against the Lord’s will. The Holy Spirit’s work done in you as you hear and abide in Jesus’ word moves your hearts and minds away from that.
The transforming that the Holy Spirit works through the divine word took place among the people of Jerusalem who received the Lord’s message from Isaiah. It happened in Jericho when Zacchaeus heard Jesus. It occurred in Thessalonica while the apostle brought the gospel to Europe, as you also heard read: “[O]ur testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Lord performs the same divine actions in you. As the Lord works in your hearts and minds, the status He has given to you is confirmed and strengthened. His grace bestows His righteousness to you, making you His holy people. Belief in His identity and work is created and reinforced, so it grows to be steadfast and abundant. The desire and resolve for good and the works of faith are established, thus increasing the love that you have for one another that is displayed in your deeds.
So you have become like the restored people of Judah, like Zacchaeus, like the Thessalonians, and like all the other saints who have gone before you. Like them, salvation has come to you. Like them, you have been sought and saved by the Son of Man. Like them, you have joyfully received Jesus in His words. “When He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at among all who have believed,” it will not be a time of fear. Instead, you will gladly welcome Jesus as He comes to be in the presence of those sinners that He has made to be His holy people for eternity.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Monday, October 28, 2013
October 27, 2013 at First St. John Lutheran Church – York, PA
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
As we commemorate Reformation Day this afternoon, our service has mixed two moods with our hymns. There has been a mood of dependence, of needing help. The first two hymns were direct prayers to God for aid: asking the Holy Spirit to be among us, then asking for divine help to remain steadfast in the faith. Then there has been confidence expressed in our singing. We were exhorted to rejoice and proclaim the victory that God has won for us. And the mood of confidence rose with those words: “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.”
That confidence found its greatest expression in the lyrics of the ancient song that we prayed: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” Those words of Psalm 46 drip with assurance and faith. Only those who have full confidence in the Lord can speak such words. And as many of you may know, the psalm’s text was the foundation for Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”.
Think again on that first line and what it testifies about the Lord: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Calling something “a refuge” means that entity is where a person can flee to. Calling something “a strength” indicates that entity is a support. The psalm states that we are to consider the Lord an individual that we turn to in order to receive support from Him. But is God our refuge and strength, as the psalm declares? The heart of the Reformation movement is wrapped up in that question: “Is God our refuge and strength?”
Oswald Bayer, a German Lutheran theologian, notes that the Reformation was really about that important question. After noting how people panic with changes in economic statuses or changes in culture and society, Bayer observes: “Precisely this reminds us of the sort of question that the Reformation tried to answer: What can we stake our life on with utter certainty in life and in death?”[i] We could rephrase the question: What gives us the confidence that we could say that God is our mighty fortress and we should rejoice over His victorious actions for us?
The answer to that question is not found in ourselves. That much is obvious, since we are calling God our refuge and strength, not saying that we are self-sufficient. But the reason for that confidence in God is found in what He has expressed concerning Himself, what He has revealed to mankind through His words and deeds. Faith, hope, and trust are placed in them.
So what did the psalm say about the Lord’s words and deeds? You prayed the verses: “Come, behold the works of the Lord, how He has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; He breaks the bow and shatters the spear; He burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’” Those statements reveal an active God, one who has control over nations and armies. For the ancient Israelites, those words would resonate greatly when considering the Lord’s victories over the Egyptian army at the Red Sea or the Philistines at the Valley of Elah or the Assyrians encamped around Jerusalem. Each of these events demonstrated the exercise of the Lord’s power and strength for His people.
But for us, the Lord’s words and deeds have been revealed in a greater way. We still look for His victorious acts, but we do not look to the Lord to fight against nations. Our concern is over enemies much greater than Pharaoh, Goliath, or Sennacherib. What can bring us deliverance from our sinfulness? Will we have a victor over death? Who can fight against Satan? What works has the Lord done to deal with those opponents?
The heart of the Reformation message concerns the answer to those matters, the issue that Bayer summarized in one question: “What can we stake our life on with utter certainty in life and in death?” The answer to that is found in the Lord’s words and deeds. It is shown to us in what God has accomplished for us through Jesus Christ: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.” Just as the words of Psalm 46 formed the basis for Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” those words of Romans 3 were the source of the words of another of his hymns that we sang portions of today:
God said to His belovèd Son: “It’s time to have compassion.
Then go, bright jewel of My crown, and bring to all salvation.
From sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death for them that they
May live with You forever.”
The Son obeyed His Father’s will, was born of virgin mother;
And God’s good pleasure to fulfill, He came to be my brother.
His royal pow’r disguised He bore; a servant’s form, like mine, He wore
To lead the devil captive.
Jesus identifies Himself as the One who deals with the enemies of sin, death, and Satan: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” And we have heard how He bestows this freedom to us. It comes not through our works of obedience but through reception of Jesus’ works through His word: “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” That word of Jesus comes to us through the Gospel proclaimed from the pulpit; it comes to us with water in the font; it comes to us with bread and wine on the altar; it comes to us in the minister’s words of absolution. Each time we hear it, that word of Jesus declares to us the truth about His work for us, His propitiating sacrifice that redeems and justifies. That truth sets us free—free from sin, free from death, free from Satan.
We needed safety from our enemies, so God became someone that we can flee to. We needed aid from above, so God became our help. He has revealed this through His words and deeds. It is the basis for the Reformation message. That is what gives us confidence to exalt the Lord among the nations and in the world:
With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this? Jesus Christ, it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever.
Those words confess the truth about the Lord expressed in the psalm: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” And that is what we stake our life on with utter certainty in life and in death.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.