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He Makes the Deaf to Hear and the Mute to Speak

Mark 7:31-37

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

A child gets cancer.  A kind person is cheated on by their spouse.  A tornado rips through a small town.  Someone is the victim of a violent crime.  A loved one dies prematurely.  A nagging ailment of body or mind won't go away.  We all are aware of stories like these.  And we all have had to endure our own suffering and afflictions of body and mind.  These sorts of things can cause the age old question to rise again in our minds: Why are these things allowed to happen?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  

Of course, that question makes a false assumption, doesn’t it–namely, that there is such a thing as good people in the sight of God.  In an earthly sense we can talk about certain folks being “good people” because of their decency or loyalty or hard work.  But it is written in Romans 3, “There is none righteous . . . there is none who does good, no, not one.”  Everything about us is tainted.  So maybe the better question to ask would be the reverse, “Why do good things happen to sinners?”  Why are the bad things held in check as much as they are?  It’s only because of the goodness and love of God who protects and sustains even those who don’t deserve it.

Bad things happen because this world is no longer in the good state it was created in.  What was originally declared by God to be “very good” has now been corrupted by the rebellion of the devil and of mankind.  Our bodies and this entire world are under the curse of decay and death.  The image of God is broken in us.  And Satan continues to assault us in an attempt to destroy us entirely in both body and soul.  Spiritually, he attacks the world with false and deceptive teaching which leads away from the saving truth of Christ.  The devil seeks to bring chaos and pain and disharmony to whatever good God has established.

And this includes physical attacks.  Jesus says that the devil has been a murderer from the beginning.  He brings disease and bodily ailments and sickness to tear down God’s good creation.  Now to the world, these things seem to be merely normal, natural afflictions with purely biological and scientific explanations.  For the world knows nothing of the devil and the hurt he perpetrates in an attempt to leave people joyless and despairing.  But we heard in the Old Testament reading that things like deafness and blindness are the work of the “terrible one” and the “scornful one.”  Martin Luther comments on the situation in today’s Gospel reading by saying: “The fact that this poor man is so handicapped that he is unable to use his tongue and his ears like other people must be traced to the troublesome devil’s stinging blows.”  

So, to answer the question: bad things happen because of the curse of sin and the power of Satan.  And we should be thankful to God that we are not more severely afflicted by them, that God restrains and holds back such things as much as He does.  However, the truly good news for us today is that God sent His Son Jesus to break the power of this curse and to overcome the devil.  Christ is our champion who sets us free from the shackles of our enemy and restores us to wholeness and life.

That is what we are given to see a glimpse of in today’s Gospel.  The people bring to Jesus a man whose ears and tongue are imprisoned, who is deaf and who therefore cannot speak rightly, either.  These people had certainly heard of Jesus’ teaching and miracles before this, and believing that Jesus can do something for the deaf man, they bring him to Him.  They’re good friends.

Jesus takes this man aside from the multitude.  For Jesus isn’t going to do this in order to wow the crowds or use the misfortune of this man to draw attention to Himself.  This is no PR stunt, as if Jesus needs good publicity to accomplish His mission.  Jesus calls us out of this world, even sometimes away from family and friends, to Himself.  

Jesus appropriately uses a bit of sign language.  He puts His fingers into the deaf man’s ears.  And then He spits and touches his tongue.  Jesus is a hands-on physician.  He isn’t above lowering Himself to the point of making contact with this man’s ailment.  He literally touches the deaf mute’s problem as if to draw it out of him and absorb it into Himself.  When Jesus touched this man, God Himself was touching him.  Those were divine fingers in His ears.  For Jesus is God in the flesh, who came for this very purpose of sharing in our humanity and taking into Himself all that holds us in bondage so that He might destroy it and the devil forever.  Jesus wore our chains so that He might break them once and for all at Calvary.  Spitting and grabbing tongues and sticking fingers in ears doesn’t sound very spiritual.  But that’s the earthy, messy, ordinary way in which Jesus deals with us fallen human beings in order to save and restore us.  

Jesus looks up to heaven.  He is saying to the man, “The Father who sent Me is at work in Me to heal you.”  Then Jesus sighs.  He groans.  He knows how deep our brokenness is, and what price he will have to pay to fix it. He knows the cost of this healing; He will have to grown to the point of death on the cross. Jesus knows our human suffering and sorrow. He knows our groaning and our weakness that He might redeem us from it all.

Jesus sighs and says to the deaf mute, “Ephphatha,”  “Be opened, be released.”  Immediately his ears are opened and the impediment of his tongue is loosed, and he speaks plainly.  Jesus here is releasing and freeing this man from his bondage to Satan.  He is liberating him from that prison.  This is more than a medical miracle.  This is a triumph over the devil.  Jesus’ words shatter the chains the evil one uses to hold his victims.  

You and I are in the same position as the deaf mute in today’s Gospel–not simply because some of us have or will be needing hearing aids.  Sin and Satan attack our bodies in various ways: in failing vision and degenerating bones and painful disease.  And even when we think we’re in perfect health, our bodies and minds are only a shadow of what they once were in paradise.  But especially spiritually speaking, the Bible says that we are all deaf and mute.  By nature we can’t grasp or understand God’s Word.  It is written, “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them.”  And if we can’t hear or understand God rightly, then neither are we going to be talk about Him or pray to Him rightly, either.  For speaking flows from hearing.  From birth we are spiritually deaf and mute.

All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He has sent His Son Jesus to open our ears and unloose our tongues, that we may believe in Him with our hearts and confess the faith with our mouths and be saved.  Jesus is still in the business of sticking His fingers in your ears.  When Christ preaches and teaches His words to you, when He speaks His words of absolution, the finger of God is being put into your ears, the Holy Spirit of Jesus is coming to you to open your ears and your hearts and your minds, that you may believe in Christ and receive His life and salvation.  The Epistle says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”

And Jesus still spits and grabs your tongue, too, in the Sacraments.  After all, what is baptism but water and words from the mouth of God?  This divine water and words are applied to you at the font to rescue you from your bondage to the evil one and to set you free as a child of God.  When you were baptized, Jesus said His “Ephphatha” to you. “Be opened, be released.”  You were marked with the sign of the holy cross by which Jesus destroyed the devil’s work and broke the chains of hell for you.  And now, as the freed children of God, the body and blood of Christ are placed on your tongues for the forgiveness of your sins and that you may endure in the faith to the end.  How fitting, then, that both our Matins and Vespers services begin with these words from the Psalms, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

We praise God because we know and believe that whatever ailments the devil might yet inflict us with, he can do us no real or lasting harm.  For our bodies, together with our souls, have been redeemed through Jesus’ death and resurrection and our baptism into Him.  Jesus is Lord over death and the devil.  And so even when it seems like age or disease are getting the best of us, even as we take our last breath, we say confidently with St. Paul in Philippians 3, “Christ Jesus will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body by the power the enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”

The crowds said, “He has done all things well.”  That is what we also say in faith, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our life.  Even the troubles God allows into our lives we can call good, for it is written, “the Lord disciplines those He loves.”  If you're suffering discipline, the Lord loves you like a son or daughter.  The Lord uses even Satan’s destructive schemes to accomplish His own righteous purposes.  For it’s precisely when we realize how weak we are of ourselves that we will rely all the more completely on the Lord’s grace and strength in Christ.  In that way the devil’s onslaughts are turned upside down so that they cause us to cling more tightly to the Lord’s promised salvation.  No matter what the devil does, God works it for good to those who love and believe in Jesus.  That’s why St. Paul actually boasts about his troubles.  He says in II Corinthians 12, “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Truly, Christ has done all things well.  Even in this place He has made the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.  Trust in Him to do all things well for you.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Bragging and Complaining, Repenting and Believing

Trinity 11
Luke 18:9-14

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

In Ephesians 2 it is written that our salvation is not of works “lest any one should boast.”  But why is it that people boast and brag in the first place?  Often it’s simply that they want to be noticed; they want credit.  Sure, it is much more satisfying to have your praises sung by someone else, and sometimes you can manipulate that into happening.  But what if others won’t do it for you?  What if the moment is passing?  What if no one notices how hard you’ve worked, how well you’ve done, how clever you’ve been?  The bragger brags because he thinks he has to.  If he doesn’t, he’ll go unnoticed and won’t get the credit that he feels is owed to him or that he needs.  Perhaps in a strange, self-defeating way, the bragger is looking to be loved.

The mirror image of bragging, the opposite side of the same coin, is complaining.  Complaining wants our sorrows, our injustices, to be known.  It, too, demands attention and credit and sympathy for the fact that you’re getting worse than you think you deserve. The complainer would be happier if someone else just noticed his injustice and spoke up and defended him.  But he can’t  wait for that.  In the pain he feels, he has to sound off about what he has suffered and at least get the credit of that notice.  Both those who brag and those who complain are afraid that no one will care about them, no one will pay attention.

That attention is what the pharisee wants in the temple.  After all, he has disciplined himself, denied himself various vices and pleasures of the flesh.  He has not behaved badly like extortioners, unjust men, adulterers, or tax-collectors.  And he has made sacrifices as well.  He fasts twice a week.  He gives a tithe of all he possesses to the Lord.  Nothing wrong with that, right?  We all would do well to discipline our bodies and give a 10% offering to church. The Epistle said that we were created in Christ Jesus for good works.

But what the Pharisee’s heart is set on is not only the public notice and honor of men.  Especially what he wants is for God to say, “Good job” and give him a little credit and reward.  But God is not impressed.  God is never all that impressed even with the great works of people, no matter how good you’ve been.  After all, what has the Pharisee really done, anyway?  He’s no Mother Theresa.  The things he has done are really the most ordinary things that he should be doing just as a matter of course.  He gave offerings to church.  He did without certain foods a couple times a week.  Reminds me of the folks supposedly going meatless on Fridays, chowing down at the fish fries.  The Pharisee just wasn’t an outrageous sinner; he hadn’t embezzled money or had an extramarital affair.  But what had he really done that’s so impressive?  And who is he to dare to stand before God and boast of his works as if God owed him something?  Jesus said in Luke 17, “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.’”

Be on guard, then, against trying to draw attention to your own good living and efforts and smarts, either in the eyes of the world or especially in the eyes of God, with the thought you should be receiving some sort of honor or reward.  For what sort of worship does that produce?  Something God-centered or something self-centered?  Notice how it says that the Pharisee prayed with himself.  He’s on his own, and it’s all about him, his own little praise service.  And in the same way, do not dwell on thoughts that your life has been more difficult either, that you have suffered more and therefore deserve more notice and more credit.  Everyone suffers and has challenges and heartaches and bruises and fears of their own.  Just as everyone has good works of some sort that go unnoticed.  In fact, the truly good works are generally the ones that don’t get a lot of attention, anyway.  It all comes from God, not you.

Repent, then, and humble yourselves.  Humility is the way of life.  Pride is the way of death.  Bragging and complaining expose the false belief of your old Adam that it’s all about what you’ve done and what you deserve, rather than something that is entirely dependent on the mercy and grace of God.  We do not give honor or thanks to God by justifying ourselves and looking down on others. The Pharisee went to the temple to pray.  But he went home damned.  Let us be warned.

Here’s what really pleases God:  It is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise.”  The Lord certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did.  For the tax collector comes not in pride but in lowly penitence and faith.  This is not fake humility or going through the motions.  The tax collector stands afar off from those praying in the temple; for he knows how his sin cuts him off from God and others.  He does not raise his eyes to heaven; for he knows he deserves no heavenly blessing.  He beats his chest when he prays in token that he is worthy to be punished severely.  He cries out his only hope, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Looking to the Lord in that way and with that faith is God-pleasing worship.  For He is good, and His mercy endures forever.  It is written, “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.”

That truth is what that tax collector staked his life on.  He didn’t trust in his own worship or how humble he was.  The tax collector’s worship was right before God, because he hated his sin, and especially because he clung to the Lord’s mercy and staked everything on that.  That faith in the mercy of God is why the tax collector went down to his house justified, righteous in God’s sight, forgiven.

And we shouldn’t forget that the tax collector had something very concrete from God to put his trust in, not just same vague hope.  For remember where he was praying.  He was in the temple, the place where the animal sacrifices were made that God had given to cover and atone for the sins of the people.  That is where the tax collector’s faith was directed.  For when he prays, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” he uses a word for mercy that has to do with the atonement God attached to that sacrificial blood.  His prayer might be better translated, "God, make atonement for me, a sinner."  So right when he makes his plea for mercy, God was answering his prayer on the temple altar.

In the same way, when you pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” you also have something very concrete and real to trust in.  For on the altar of the cross, the blood of Christ was shed to cover and atone for your sins and the sins of the whole world.  All of the sacrifices in the temple were pointing forward to that once-for-all event on Good Friday where your prayers were answered.  God is merciful to you, a sinner, in Jesus.  It is a mercy that knows no limit and has no end.  You are released and entirely forgiven.  Just as the blood of Abel the shepherd covered the ground, so the holy blood of Jesus the Good Shepherd covers you who are made of dust.  By it you are justified, declared righteous, reconciled to God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

It’s all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  And that’s true even when it comes to your good works.  They, too, have been given to you by grace.  For the Epistle said that they were prepared beforehand by God for you to walk in.  Christ is the one who is at work in you to do good, to walk by faith, to love your neighbor in the vocations God has put you into.  Since it’s all centered in Jesus, bragging no longer applies.  For by faith we boast not in ourselves but in the Lord.  And complaining no longer applies, either.  For our hope is entirely in the Lord’s mercy, and we trust that He is good, and that He works for good even through the crosses and affliction He allows us to bear.  Do not fear; wait on the Lord.

The tax collector points us to where we continually need to look–to the God of mercy who sent His Son to redeem creation from the devil’s power.  So if you must boast, boast in the Lord.  If you don’t have a great dramatic story about your conversion, that’s alright; boast in the Lord.  You are forgiven and righteous.  If you aren’t particularly popular or well-known, if your house isn’t all that  spectacular and needs repairs, if people find you average and ordinary, that’s alright; boast in the Lord.  And if you haven’t done great things in the kingdom that people will honor you for, you haven’t converted scores of people to the faith, boast in the Lord.  You do not need spiritual merit badges to show off.  You go down to your houses today justified.  That is what matters.  Jesus loves you.  You are not insignificant in heaven. You are the cause of angelic rejoicing: boast in that and let that be enough.

And if you hunger for honor, find it here at the Lord’s table. For if there would be honor in being invited to eat with a head of state, the queen of England, how much more honor is there in being received at the table of the Head and King of creation.  You are given to receive the Lord Himself in the supper, and to kneel next to His own saints and loved ones as a family member in the household of God.  Look around you when you come to the Lord’s table today.  We do not despise one another, because those gathered here, the baptized, are God’s saints.  And then, finally, learn to see yourself also as God sees you in Christ.  Because your Lord does notice you, and He loves you and delights in you.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. David Petersen for some of the above)

The Time of Your Visitation

Luke 19:41-48
Trinity 10

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

          Those of you who are approaching my age or older will remember a song from the mid-1970's called “Cats in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin.  It sings of a father who neglects spending time with his young son, who’s eager to be with him, in favor of other supposedly more important things.  When his boy grows up and the father finally wants to spend time with him, the son has other priorities and responsibilities that keep that from happening; the tables are turned.  And then the tragic realization sets in for the father, “He’d grown up just like me, My boy was just like me.”  There was a time when the father could have established a close relationship with his son.  But he didn’t recognize it when it counted.  The chance slipped away.

Now if that’s a sad reality in a human relationship, how much more tragic is it in a person’s relationship with God, when people don’t realize the gracious chance that is being given to them in this time of the Gospel?  The key saying of our Lord in today’s Gospel as He weeps over Jerusalem is this: “You did not know the time of your visitation.”  They didn’t recognize the tremendous and unique thing that was happening in the days of Jesus’ ministry.  They cast the opportunity aside and rejected their Savior.  And so out of great sorrow and great love for them, He weeps.

Our Lord visits His people.  The God who fills all of time and space comes to His people in particular times and places to deliver and redeem them.  Just like when beloved family or friends come to visit from out of town, and we don’t want to miss the opportunity to be with them in the flesh, so we should be careful not to miss the time when our Lord is here for us in the flesh.

However, in our sin we sometimes become rather casual about the Lord’s visitation.  We take it for granted that His coming to us in preaching and the Sacraments will always be available.  “I’ve got so many other things to be doing on the weekend.  Church will always be there.”  Hopefully you’ve learned from the response to COVID the last two years, that’s not necessarily the case.  Whether it’s because of a health crisis, or whether it’s because of our society’s growing hostility to the Church and God’s Word, with all the legal and financial and social pressures that brings, we shouldn’t assume anything.  Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, and that is most certainly true.  But that doesn’t mean that His visitation will always continue to be the same in every place.

Let me remind you again what Martin Luther said to his countrymen about the Gospel. It’s worth repeating and re-reading.  Luther said: “Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today...  If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague.  O my beloved Germans, ... gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the [Muslim] Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year.”

Note there that gratitude is the key thing; not taking God’s Word and the Holy Sacrament for granted but being thankful for it and treasuring it.  If we would see things rightly, we would be full of joy that we get to gather like this for divine service.  Remember how in the Old Testament Amos prophesied “a famine of the Word.”  And Jesus Himself said in John 9, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.”

Jesus knew that the darkness was coming upon Jerusalem.  Just forty years after this Gospel in 70 A.D., Jesus’ words were fulfilled.  Jerusalem was attacked and laid siege by the Romans.  Hundreds of thousands were horrifically killed or died from famine and plague.  Tens of thousands were carried away as slaves.  The city was destroyed and the temple was laid waste.  All that is left of the temple today is the western wall of the temple courts, the wailing wall.

This was the judgment of God.  The Romans were His instrument in executing the sentence.  For Israel had rejected the Messiah in His humility and lowliness.  It was their day, and they missed it.  The things that made for their peace with God were hidden from their eyes by their own unbelief.  The weeping of God eventually becomes the judgment of God for the self-righteous and the unrepentant.  To reject His visitation in mercy is to invite His visitation in vengeance.

Let this be a clear and sobering call to repentance for us today.  For what happened to the Jews in Jerusalem in the 1st century is a miniature picture of what will happen to all the unbelieving world on judgment day.  Take note of where Jerusalem went wrong, and take refuge in the Lord who will keep you in safety on that Day.  Be on guard against becoming more religious about politics than you are about Christ and His Word; remember that whatever the current media-driven cause is, it’s nowhere near as important as people penitently believing in Christ crucified to save sinners.  Beware of relying on your own good living to bring you into God’s favor rather than Christ alone.  Resist the temptation to look for God in impressive signs rather than trusting in His humble but sure words and supper.  And certainly, don’t be like those who bought and sold in the temple, and try to use religion as a way of getting God to bless you financially.

Turn away from all of that, and turn to Him whose heart still weeps out of love for you, His people.  Trust in Him who continues to cry out, “If you would know, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  The wood of the cross, the stone rolled away from the empty tomb–these are the things that make for your peace.  Christ Himself is your Peace.  Jesus is the One who brings reconciliation between you and God by His bloody death and His triumphant victory over the grave.  He is the One who gives you the peace that passes all understanding.  This right now is the day of your visitation, as it is written, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” This is the moment in which Christ is coming to you in His Gospel resounding in your ears.  Believe in Him; trust in what He has done; seek His righteousness.

For our Lord has truly cleansed the temple.  When Jesus drove out the moneychangers in righteous anger and purified the temple as a house of prayer, that was a sign of what He was about to do at Calvary.  For there on the cross Jesus Himself experienced the righteous anger of God against the world’s sin and drove it out in the temple of His own body.  Jesus made Himself unclean in your place.  He took all of the greed and the self-righteousness and the pollution of every sin that you’ve done or that has been done to you, and He made it His own dirty mess.  By His holy sacrifice He took it away from you and cleansed it from you forever.  You are safe from divine judgment.  For you are in Him who took the judgment for you.

Jesus had said of His body, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Though the temple in Jerusalem remains destroyed, Jesus could not remain in the grave.  He is now bodily raised in glory as the new and eternal dwelling place of God for you.  Jesus’ risen body is your temple, full of holiness and cleansing and life.  Since you are baptized members of the body of Christ, those things are all yours.  You are the temple of Christ’s Spirit, who dwells in you through  faith to live out your callings in a God-pleasing way that shows love for Him above all things and puts divine service at the center of your life.

So open your eyes; know and perceive what the Lord is doing!  He is coming to visit, both today and on the Last Day.  That is bad news for the unrepentant.  But for all of you who believe, it is the greatest good news.  This is your day; this is the time of your visitation!  Don’t miss out.  Here are the things that make for your peace, the body and blood of Christ, offered up for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your peace, for your rest, for your restoration to the Father.  And so we say with Zechariah of old, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68).  May the Lord grant you attentive ears to hear Him, like the people at the end of the Gospel, and open eyes to perceive His visitation, so that by His grace you may dwell eternally in the new Jerusalem above.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Jesus, the Unjust Steward

Luke 16:1-13

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

If you want to understand the meaning of a parable, one of the things you can do is to look for the part that seems a little bit strange and unexpected.  In the parable of the Lost Sheep, it’s the shepherd who leaves the 99 alone in the wilderness just to go after the one–that’s odd.  In the parable of the Good Samaritan it’s the  fact that the good guy is not the respected priest but the despised foreigner–what’s up with that?.  In the parable of the Sower and the Seed, it’s the Sower scattering seed recklessly on all types of soil–doesn’t He know better?  And in today’s Gospel parable it’s that the one being praised is the unjust steward.  Jesus actually holds up as an example a man who mismanaged his master’s goods and then cheated the master out of what the people owed him so that after he was fired they would give him room and board.  That unexpected and unusual thing is the key to this parable. So what are we to learn from this? What is Jesus’ point?

To begin with, we should ask the question: whom does the steward represent?  First of all, he represents us according to our old Adam, who have often been poor stewards of the goods of the Master, the things the Lord has entrusted to us.  Have we always used the money and possessions and abilities that we’ve received from God to serve our neighbor and to help build up the Church and the ministry of the Gospel?  And when we have done that (because we know it’s the right thing to do), has there still been a struggle against the flesh which wants to use our resources for other things?  Isn’t it usually harder to give a significant amount of money in offerings to church or an anonymous charitable gift than it is to spend the same amount for entertainment or a trip or some new thing you’ve always wanted?  Or in our stewardship as parents and grandparents, have we encouraged our children’s devotion more to extracurricular activities or to the Word of God, pleasing their peers or pleasing the Lord?  Are we more concerned about them making a good living or having eternal life?  And are we ourselves more concerned with how we look to family and friends or how we look to God?  More interested in our physical health and appearance or our spiritual health and endurance in the faith? The truth is, if we were called before the Lord to give an account of our stewardship, to lay out not only our bank statements but also the dreams and desires and motivations of our hearts, there also would be cause for us to be dismissed from our stewardship.

However, I would suggest that in a deeper sense, the steward in the parable actually represents Christ Himself, the eternal manager of the heavenly Father’s goods.  For remember what occurred right before today’s Gospel.  Jesus had just finished telling the story of the prodigal son in chapter 15.  Jesus had just been accused of wasting His time and efforts on tax collectors and sinners, throwing away His Father’s “goods,” mercy and forgiveness, on people such as that.  And now He tells a parable about a steward who was supposedly mismanaging goods.  Do you see?  He’s talking about Himself and the way things are in the kingdom of God.

For what does the steward do in today’s Gospel?  He goes around to everyone forgiving debt!  To the one who owes 100 measures of oil, his bill is reduced to 50.  And to the one who owes 100 measures of wheat, his bill is reduced to 80.  The steward desires to be received by them, and the way that happens is by forgiveness, by debts being cut and taken away.

That is the way of Jesus.  He comes to us as one who “mismanages” the Father’s goods, throwing away God’s mercy and forgiveness on us.  It doesn’t matter to Jesus that He’s accused of giving away God’s grace too cheaply.  After all, His grace is not cheap, it’s free, since He purchased it for us at the greatest cost of His own blood!  Jesus’ mission was to bear every accusation, to take all that we are justly accused of and make full payment for our debts.  Jesus made eternal friends of us, not by hoarding things for Himself, but by living as one with no home of his own, no place to lay his head.  The material things of this world He used entirely in the service of others, having nothing but literally the clothes on His back.  He became poor so that we might know and receive the riches of His mercy.  He even gave away His own body into death, so that through His atoning and all-sufficient sacrifice we would be cleansed from all unrighteousness.

Jesus the Steward desires to be received by us, into our homes and into our hearts.  That doesn’t happen by some decision or commitment that we make; it comes by the forgiveness and the release from the debt of sin that He freely gives.  Jesus has done much more than cut your bill by 20% or even 50%.  He’s taken care of it all.  “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  All of it.  You are debt-free toward God in Christ.  Repent and believe that Gospel.

Which brings us to one more important point about the steward in the parable–his faith.  Jesus praised him not only because he was shrewd, but also because he trusted in his master’s mercy.  That’s the key.  He believed that the same master who didn’t have him thrown into prison for wasting his possessions (when he could have) would also be merciful to him by honoring the debts he reduced (which the master didn’t necessarily have to).  The steward knew what sort of a gracious and good master he had, and that’s where he put his hope.  He believed his master to be a man of generosity and forgiveness, and he staked his salvation and his future on that.  So it’s not just the steward’s shrewdness, but it is his faith in the master’s mercy that is praised here.

So also, you are called to trust that the Father is a God of mercy who will forgive your debts through Christ, that you may be received into an everlasting home.  We stake our salvation and our future on the generosity and forgiveness of our God.  It is that faith God desires and which He praises.  We believe that God the Father will be merciful to us for the sake of Jesus–just as Jesus relied on His Father’s mercy and trusted in Him even on the cross.  Remember, as a true man Jesus also lived by faith; He believed that the Father would honor His death in our place to cover what we owed and that He would raise Him up on the third day.

And now Jesus has ordained stewards to stand in His place, to distribute the eternal blessings He has won by His death and resurrection.  Jesus commends His stewards when they “squander” His possessions in the ministry of the Holy Gospel and cancel the debts you owe Him.  That is my job as a pastor–to be a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:5), to the take the Master’s goods and give them away to penitent believers.  Whenever you hear the Gospel and the absolution, it’s as if I am asking you, “What does your bill say?  What impossible debt do you owe because of your sin?  Sit down, take your bill, and write 0, paid in full.”  You are all squared up with God in Christ–and then some.

Believing that, living in that faith, you are freed to be shrewd like the steward in the parable. As Jesus said elsewhere, we are to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.  If the people of the world can be passionate and smart about worldly things–money and politics and pleasures–why can’t we be passionate and smart about eternal things?  By faith you are given to use mammon not only to make friends in this life, but to put it to use to make eternal friends in the fellowship of the Gospel, supporting the mission of the church in your offerings and in your estate planning, investing in the things that will last into eternity, using the things of this life with an eye toward the life of the world to come, desiring to be received by your fellow saints into the everlasting home prepared for you by Christ.

That’s what Paul is talking about in Philippians 3.  Paul had much that He could boast of.  He had a noble family lineage; he was a leading Pharisee who was honored as a wise and zealous religious leader.  He had a bright future ahead of him.  But what does he say after his conversion to Christianity?  “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

Here in divine service, unrighteous mammon is put to a righteous use in the sacraments–in the oil of baptism, in the wheat of the supper.  In this way eternal friends are made, bound together by the love of Christ.  Common bread and wine are consecrated to be the holy, eternal body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for your forgiveness.  He is with you.  And in the end when all the accounting is done, there will be an eternal dwelling for you, a permanent home, mortgage paid in full by the Son of God, who gave Himself for you to give you life forever.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Beware of False Prophets

Matthew 7:13-23

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Jesus speaks a harsh truth at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading: most people are on their way to hell.  Most people are going to be damned.  I take no pleasure in saying that, but Jesus clearly teaches that when it comes to numbers, many take the broad way that leads to destruction; only a few find the narrow way that leads to life.  And you don’t really want to believe that this is true.  At the very least you try to ignore it.  I know you do, otherwise you would behave differently.  You wouldn’t live as if everything is going along fine with yourself and with the people you care about.  You wouldn’t make excuses about them being absent from church and the saving gifts of Christ.  There would be an urgency for the condition of their soul and their standing before God.  But we are generally content just to keep the peace, to worry about financial matters and political matters and family matters more than spiritual matters.

That’s why Jesus gives us an urgent warning in today’s Gospel: Beware of false prophets!  This world is crawling with those who make it seem that you’re odd if you’re not walking the broad path that most people are taking.  The world is full of prophets like Jeremiah described who say, “No evil shall come upon you.”  “You shall have peace.”  “Pretty much everyone goes to heaven unless they’re just a horrible person.”  Beware of who it is that you’re listening to.  Always engage in spiritual discernment of what you’re hearing.  Don’t assume that just because something isn’t explicitly theological that it doesn’t have implications for your faith and people’s spiritual welfare.

Never forget that even if a person doesn’t go to church, they’re still going to be hearing preaching every day.  Every time you watch a TV show or movie or video on social media, every time you listen to music or a talk show or a podcast, or go to a concert or some entertainment venue, there will  be some morality, some worldview, that is being pushed on you with disarming humor or compelling images or emotional rhetoric.  The broad way preachers tell you that there are many different paths to the divine, that you must follow your heart and your dreams and your passions.  Just believe in yourself and express yourself.  Speak your truth and live your truth–as if there were more than one truth, no Truth that is higher than us regardless of what we think or feel, just the truth that supposedly flows from our hearts.  But then there’s God’s Word which says, “The heart is deceitful and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).  Jesus Himself said, “From within, out of the heart...come wickedness and deceit” (Mark 7:21-22).  That’s no place to be looking for truth.  

Beware of false prophets also in our education system.  People falsely assume that because public schools are secular that therefore they are neutral with regards to our faith.  But no school can exist without some sort of moral and spiritual worldview and framework.  Setting up a system that explicitly excludes God from the conversation is itself a religious and theological position.  That God-vacuum is going to be filled by something, usually a version of atheistic secular humanism.  Especially in the upper grades and in higher education, we see the godless Marxist emphasis on understanding the world as a power struggle between various identity groups; we see the acceptance and even the promotion of gender and sexual deviancy; we see the overt mocking of Christian teaching.  Christian parents spend thousands upon thousands of dollars sending their kids to secular universities, and unless there’s a good campus ministry and church for them to connect with, all too often they come home as very nice and slightly arrogant pagans.  Martin Luther’s words are on target, “I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme.  Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s Word becomes corrupt. . . I am afraid that the schools will prove to be the very gates of hell, unless they diligently labor in explaining the Holy Scriptures and engraving them in the heart of the youth.”  

And beware of false prophets especially in the church.  In fact that’s the whole point of the wolves wearing the sheep’s clothing, so that they look like they belong in the church, pretending to be sheep of the Good Shepherd.  The most dangerous false prophets are pastors whom people trust to give them the truth, but who instead speak a vision of their own hearts, not from the mouth of the Lord.  

And in particular I am compelled today to speak out against a particular Christian group–not the followers of the pope with all his errors, not the evangelicals with their rejection of the Sacraments.  I must today speak out against a group that calls itself Lutheran, the so-called Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA, the largest Lutheran body in this country.  Just because a group calls themself Lutheran doesn’t mean that they are.  And sadly, the ELCA is not.  Their official teaching and practice stray far not just from what Martin Luther and the reformers taught and confessed, but from the Scriptures themselves.

In fact, the ELCA officially teaches that not all of the Bible is God’s Word.  They say that some of it didn’t happen or is the product of human invention or is only the opinion of its writers, especially those they disagree with like the Apostle Paul.  And how does one determine which parts are God’s Word and which parts aren’t?  Well, I guess that’s yours to determine, which of course makes the Bible into bit of a wax nose.  This turning away from God’s Word has led the ELCA to engage in the ordination of women, which the Bible explicitly forbids, since pastors are given to be icons of the man Jesus to His bride the Church.  In the same vein, the ELCA has embraced same-sex marriages and homosexual clergy and transgenderism and much of the “pride” agenda against clear Scriptural teaching.  On the day that the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, the head bishopress of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton even tweeted out a weasily pro-choice statement that justified the killing of unborn children.  Their church health plan and therefore church offerings pay for abortions.  It’s no surprise, then, that the ELCA has officially entered into communion fellowship with Protestant groups that deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament and with the Roman Catholic church which denies that we are declared righteous by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone apart from our works.  The theology of the ELCA is more driven by the broad way of the culture than by the narrow way of Scriptural faithfulness.  There may indeed be faithful congregations and faithful Christians within the ELCA--I don't want to be misunderstood about this--but we certainly shouldn’t assume that, especially since the body they are willingly a part of is so openly in rebellion against God’s Word.  Beware of the ELCA.  Beware of false prophets.

Always remember, whoever it is that you’re dealing with, it never is a loving thing to deny sin and treat it as if it’s OK.  We think that’s the nice thing to do because it keeps the peace and makes people happy.  But to deny sin is to deny the forgiveness of sins and the mercy of Christ which is at the heart of the Gospel and which we all so desperately need.  And in the same way, it’s not helpful for people and church bodies to “agree to disagree” about what the Bible teaches and just go ahead and commune together anyway, as if the doctrine doesn’t really matter.  To minimize doctrine is to minimize Christ who is the heart and center of all biblical teaching and doctrine.  How is that loving?  We are called to speak the truth in love. When we compromise Scriptural teaching, when we justify sin, we only show that we care more about what people think than about what God thinks.

So let us repent of our sin, and let us always keep the focus on Jesus and His words in our teaching and preaching.  For He is the True Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy.  He is Himself the narrow way which He calls us to enter by.  For He said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  This path is narrow and difficult because it is the way of the cross.  It’s not about self-fulfillment, but sacrifice.  It is the Way of Jesus who bore the cross for you so that you may follow Him through suffering to share with Him in the resurrection of the body.  Jesus walked that narrow way of sorrows for you to Calvary.  He died to take away your sins; He cleared the path and opened the narrow gate of faith in Him, so that you may have eternal life purely by His grace.

So in the midst of all the spirituality talk and God talk that you hear out there, ask yourself, is the focus on me, or is it on Christ and what He has done for me?  Is it about how I can have a better life in this world through my own spiritual exercises and efforts, or is it about how I can have a new life in Jesus solely through His suffering and death and resurrection?

Remember the words of Jesus, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  And the will of the Father is all wrapped up and centered in Christ.  He is the one who does the will of the Father perfectly.  He is the One who prayed to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but Yours be done.”  The will of the Father was that Jesus go to the cross to suffer and die as the ransom price to redeem you and save you.  And so the will of the Father for you is that you trust in Christ and cling to Him alone for redemption and follow Him day by day in the callings He has placed you into.   It is written in John 6, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  That’s what it means to do the will of the Father: to cling to Christ as the way of life, to believe in His words and stake your life on Him.  He alone is the way into the kingdom of heaven, He who is fully God and fully man, who was crucified, resurrected, and ascended in the flesh for the salvation of sinners.  The will of God is fulfilled in Jesus for you.

So beware of preachers who teach something different than this faithful pattern of Scriptural words that you’ve been given in the catechism and the creeds.  Read the Scriptures, come to Bible class as a defense against the world’s false preaching and allurements.  Beware of those who cast aside the liturgy for something that is more like a stage show, whose teaching doesn’t square with the words of divine service and the preaching that you hear in this place.  Even if you can’t quite put your finger on what’s wrong, just flee from them.  And flee to Christ.

For the good tree in the Gospel that bears good fruit is none other than Jesus’ cross.  As it is written, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we having died to sins, might live for righteousness.  By His stripes we are healed.”  Jesus is a sheep in wolves’ clothing.  He is the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in darkness and sin at Golgotha in order to put them to death in His body, so that you would be delivered from all evil.  In Jesus the wolf has been conquered.  Sin, death, and the devil have been undone for you.  Taking refuge in Christ, you are saved and safe forever from all the lying anti-Gospels that are out there.  You are the church of God which He has purchased with His own blood.  Even when your feelings say otherwise, you belong to Him still; He will never leave you or forsake you.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from His love.

Come, then, to the holy tree and receive the holy fruit of His blood and His body, which cleanses you of your sin and gives you everlasting life.  By His fruits you will know Him.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Bread of Death, Bread of Life

Mark 8:1-9
Trinity 7

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Even in our age of keto, paleo, low-carb diets, bread is still a basic staple of life.  Our Lord tells us to pray for our daily bread, which of course includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body.  And yet we sometimes forget that the reason we eat bread at all is a result of our fall into sin.  Bread is a sign of the curse.  For God said to Adam and to all his descendants, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”

There was no bread in beginning, in the Garden.  Before the Fall Adam and Eve simply ate the fruit of the trees and the vegetation which God had freely given, and which they were given to tend to.  Without any burdensome labor on their part, God provided to them all that they needed to sustain their lives.  There was no exhausting tilling of the fields or grinding the wheat or kneading and baking as with bread.  Food was simply given to them in abundance as a gift from their Creator.

But that all changed when Adam and Eve rebelled against the Lord by reaching out for the one food that He had not given them to eat.  They wanted to do things their own way, be in charge of their own lives, become their own gods.  The devil promised them great things, but that promise turned out to be a lie.  Instead of gaining something, they ended up losing their life with God and were left empty and famished.

We, too, know the temptation to reach for that which God has not given, to consume the things and the philosophies of this world and to trust in them to bring us happiness and contentment.  Satan wants your spiritual diet to consist of satisfying your own desires, focusing not on the Lord and His words but on the pleasures and the honors of this temporal, passing world.  To appease your spiritual hunger, the devil tries to sell you junk food.  He hisses in your ear, “If you would just get better and newer stuff, maybe even a better and newer relationship, if you would just spend more time on self-care and recreation, if you would just buy in to the self-help spirituality of our culture, why then you would be fulfilled.”  But the devil is a liar.  He offers nothing of substance, nothing that lasts, like state fair cotton candy that melts away in the rain.  The more we feed on such things, the more empty and famished we will become.  None of these things can truly satisfy the gnawing hunger of the soul.

And the eating of bread is meant to serve as a reminder of that.  Every time you choose between white or whole wheat, ciabatta or a pita, even a corn tortilla or a gluten-free wrap, you should remember that you’re no longer in paradise.  You may not have to literally sweat for your bread, but you are paying for it in one way or another.  You’re in a fallen, desert world that is vastly different from what God first made.  Romans 8 says that all creation groans under sin’s curse and is in bondage to decay.   Weeds and thistles infest the ground.  Children are brought forth in pain.  There is sickness and hardship, harsh weather and earthquakes.  We can sometimes come up with temporary solutions to these problems with technology or medical advancements.  But in the end, we are all given to eat the bread of death.

However, into this barren world breaks the very Son of God Himself to save you.  For where is Jesus in the Gospel?  He is in the wilderness with a multitude of people who have nothing to eat, those who are feeling the effects of the curse very concretely.  Christ took on your human flesh and blood and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  Man’s sin turned the world from paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse on creation and restore you to paradise.    

Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with your inward parts, your heart, your guts.  In other words Jesus feels for you deeply in His inner being with the greatest possible empathy.  So fully does Jesus feel for you in His gut and in His heart that He went so far as to make your problems His problems.  Jesus cares not only for the spiritual but also the physical welfare of these people.  He doesn’t want them to faint on the way. Jesus feels for what happens with your bodies.  He knows what you’re going through.  In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He made Himself a part of your blood and sweat and tears in order to redeem your bodies and souls and renew the fallen creation in which you live.

That’s what is beginning to take place in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  But here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death.  You see a small glimpse of how it was in the beginning and how it will be even more so in the new creation of the age to come.

Jesus would complete His work of breaking the power of the curse on the cross.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly power was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now streams to you from His pierced side, flowing to you from the baptismal font [as it did for young Chloe this day].  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Remember, this miracle occurred on the third day in the Gospel.  That’s Easter language.  Death and hell have been taken away from you, and you have been given a new life to live through the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  Still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration,  and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  Still today, Jesus uses the smallest amounts of bread to multiply His grace and feed and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  He said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

When all had eaten there was more left over than what they started with.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  This is a sign that the Lord’s love and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out.  There is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it.  In fact, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  It’s not just that the Lord is going to restore you to what Adam and Eve knew in Eden.  He is going to exalt you to something much greater and better than that.  The place being prepared for you surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For by sharing fully in your humanity, Christ has lifted you up to the very throne and glory of God.  You’re not just going back to paradise, you’re going forward to a new creation.

And all this Jesus has done by turning the curse into a blessing.  He takes the things that once were signs of death and makes them signs of life for you.  The deathly curse of the cross is now for you the thing which brings the blessing of life.  When you see a crucifix, you see your hope and salvation.  And when you come to the altar, cursed bread is now for you the thing which brings the blessed body of Christ in the Sacrament.  Our Lord turns evil for good to redeem you.

So as you eat the daily bread that God provides day by day, be it a dinner roll or a sandwich or even a doughnut after church, remember not only the fall into sin but especially Christ the Bread of Life who has undone the fall into sin and broken the curse.  Every meal is, in that sense, a sacramental sign of God’s grace and goodness toward you.  Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which he may eat and never die.  

In the Gospel, there is no sweating to work your way into God’s favor, no wages or merits to be earned from the Father.  There is only the gift of life in His Son.  As you receive Him who is the Bread of Life,  you are being given a taste of paradise.  For heaven is where Christ is, and Christ is here for you.  “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who trusts in Him.”  

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Am I in the Place of God?

Luke 6:36-42; Genesis 50

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

In today’s OT reading, Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?”  Joseph’s brothers were afraid that he was going to judge and condemn them.  A long time earlier, you recall, they had plotted to kill Joseph. They saw that their father favored him; and Joseph had told them these seemingly-delusional fantasies of his that one day his family would all bow down to him. And so they took him and threw him in a deep pit, leaving him to die. But then they saw some traders passing by on their way to Egypt, and they decided to sell him. They got twenty pieces of silver for him. And Joseph became a slave in Egypt.

Even in the midst of this web of hatred and betrayal, of suffering and loss, God was at work. He used the evil done by Joseph’s brothers to put Joseph in a position to become a ruler in Egypt, and in that way to save the very brothers who had plotted to kill him.

But now, their father Jacob is dead. And the brothers are fearing that Joseph will, at long last, get his revenge. It must have been tempting for him. Joseph had soldiers and guards to command. He had more money and more power than we can imagine. But instead, he said to his fearful brothers, “Am I in the place of God?”

Let us ponder that question today as it applies to us.  For that is precisely the thing that Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel reading. When you show no mercy, you act as if you are God in place of God.  When you judge someone not under your authority, you seize the right of God and act as though you are the Lord.  Who are you to condemn? Who are you to withhold forgiveness? That is what Joseph was saying. “Am I in the place of God? Only God has the right to judge you. Vengeance is the Lord’s.  It is my place to forgive and show mercy, and even though you harmed me, I will forgive. And besides all this, I see that while you meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”

We learn something most important in Joseph’s words: God uses even evil for His own purposes; the Lord uses the disordered wickedness of the evil one to accomplish His own good and gracious will.  We should keep that in mind in the midst of all the evil and suffering in the world that we see.  God is not the author of any of it; but He does enter into it to accomplish real good for us.  The ultimate example of this is the crucifixion, where God takes the greatest evil ever perpetrated–the murder of the Jesus His Son–and works that suffering for good: the taking away of the world’s sin, the forgiveness of your sin and mine.

And so both Joseph and his brothers are examples to us: Joseph’s brothers confessed their sin and asked for mercy; and Joseph forgave them readily.  Nothing is better for family unity and reconciliation than openly acknowledging sin when it occurs and freely forgiving sin.

When Jesus says, “Judge not!” we could put His meaning this way: “Stop having an attitude of criticism and fault finding.”  Our lives and relationships are corrupted by this, especially those we know very well–when we’re constantly focusing on other people’s flaws and problems rather than focusing on their strengths and good qualities and explaining everything in the kindest way.  Beware of creating narratives in your head where the other person’s good qualities are minimized and their flaws are magnified.

Now, these words of our Lord, “Judge not” are among the very few verses that unbelievers like to quote, right?  “Judge not” is often misused in a deceitful way to rule out any discipline at all, to take off the table any notion of absolute right and wrong.  But Jesus does not rule out the legitimate use of judging.  A judge and jury in a court has not only the right but the duty to judge; a teacher in a school must judge the students and grade and assess their work, despite recent efforts to avoid real grading; parents have the commandment of God to discipline and judge and correct their children; citizens have the right to judge and debate whether this or that law or this or that candidate is the best one to vote for; pastors have the commandment of God to call people to repentance and to faith in Christ alone; and the whole church, all of you Christians have the command to judge doctrine and discern the spirits, whether they are from God, and to avoid all false teaching. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ “Judge not” statement occurs also in Matthew 7.  In that very same chapter Jesus tells us to “Beware of false prophets.”  And that requires you to judge whether or not what they are saying is true and according to God’s Word.  In fact, you could make the case that a lot of what has gone wrong in the world is that governing officials and citizens, parents and teachers, pastors and believers have stopped doing the judging that God has told them to do for the good of all.

So Jesus is not declaring anarchy here and the end of all legitimate judgments, or that the commandments no longer apply and we should just be fine with everyone living however they want and rejecting what is true and good.  Rather, what Jesus is doing here is calling out our constant tendency to criticize and find fault in others. In the same way that we naturally cover up our own imperfections, we should be applying the same courtesy to others, as St. Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

When we exercise our God-given duty of making judgments in one of our various vocations, that is right.  But to do so outside of that is wrong.  So within our offices, where God has given us authority, we are to exercise judgment in a godly way.  But to our neighbors, where God has not made us judge or put us in any office over that person, then we are to show only mercy.  Our attitude is to be just as Joseph’s: “Am I in the place of God?” “Who am I to judge you?”

Jesus asks, “Can the blind lead the blind?” Jesus warns us about being blind to our own faults. We easily see the speck in our brother’s eye, but do not so easily perceive the log protruding from our own face.  If we are careful to analyze the depth of our own sin, the faults of others will then appear as mere specks by comparison. St. Paul spoke of himself as “chief of sinners,” and that’s how we are to consider ourselves.  And by the way, those who demonstrate that sort of humble attitude are much more likely to actually be able to help others with their specks.

So when we see someone else sinning, even doing some wrong against us, we should learn to see that as a tiny speck of sawdust.  For if God graciously forgives our many sins and is resolved to forget our big beam, how can we not be merciful in regard to our neighbor’s speck?  We should say, “Dear brother, may God who has overlooked my many planks and has forgiven all my sins, may he also forgive your splinter of sin.”

In doing that, of course, we are not condoning sin, nor are we earning merits to save ourselves–Christ has accomplished that for us. We are learning how to be disciples and followers of Jesus, which means loving our enemies and forgiving those who trespass against us.  This is what it means to live as a Christian.  Our Lord says,“Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” He doesn’t mean be merciful only to people we like, people who are close to us, or people from whom we can expect some good thing in return. He means be merciful to people we can’t stand, people who have hurt us, people that we would like to write off and never talk to again.

And of course, that’s not easy! We don’t want to do it. So when that challenge comes, we have to remember this: We have broken every commandment in one way or another.  We have despised God and His Word. He would be justified in saying, “Why should I not send those wretched hypocrites straight to hell?” But instead, He sends the rain to water our earth, He gives us food from the earth, and makes the sun to shine. He gives us beauty and joy in this world, a body to delight in His creation; and beyond all of that, He sends His Son to redeem us and give us eternal life. That is the kind of mercy He practices, and it is the kind of mercy He wishes for us to learn to practice.

So constantly meditate on how merciful and kind God is to you. If you think God is a harsh judge, then that is how you will treat others. But when you remember that He is merciful, that He is love, then you will want to be merciful and loving to your neighbor as God in Christ is to you.

 So, in the light of that truth, we can now see Joseph’s rhetorical question in a very different way: “Am I in the place of God?”  And the answer actually is “Yes, you are in the place of God, to show mercy even as He does.”  You are in God’s place because God put Himself in your place.  God in Christ took on flesh, and all the judgment for your sin was poured out on Him to set you free.  Jesus suffered all the vengeance of the whole world’s sin on the cross to take it away.  Everything that you had coming, everything that anyone else deserves, too, Jesus experienced that in your place to save you.  The cross has absorbed all vengeance and has freed us to love and forgive even our enemies.  

So in a very real sense, Joseph was in the place of God.  He stood in the stead of Christ, as an icon of Jesus in giving the forgiveness of the Lord to his brothers.  That’s how it is in the church still today, both for pastors and laypeople.  You are in the place of God.  According to my office I stand in Christ’s stead as an icon of Jesus to give you the forgiveness of the Lord in the absolution.  You are forgiven, fully and freely.  And then you also stand in Christ’s stead as an icon of Jesus to give the forgiveness of the Lord to your neighbor wherever God has placed you in this world.  As a member of the body of Christ, you stand in the place of God to forgive and love one another.  For Christ dwells in you by your baptismal faith to be merciful just as your Father in heaven in merciful.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)