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The Holy Seed


Luke 8:4-15

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

The weather lately certainly hasn’t been gardening weather.  But I imagine that there are at least a couple among us who have some old garden seeds stored away somewhere in the garage or in the basement or a drawer in the kitchen–maybe some leftover green bean seeds or cucumber or zucchini seeds, or sweet corn or flower seeds.  If you think about it, seeds are really remarkable things.  They can lay around for months, seemingly dry and dead.  And yet consider what they do!  A buried acorn becomes a huge oak tree.  An almost invisible speck produces the lettuce and carrots and tomatoes and other vegetables we eat.  A hard pellet imbedded with complex DNA codes and intricate chemical systems starts a chain reaction when something as simple as water is added to it.

The seed is an important element in several of Jesus’ parables.  One of His shortest ones goes like this, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is larger than all garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

The seed teaches us of the hidden way God works.  What appears unimpressive, even dead, is precisely where the action is at.  Seeds are, in a way, a sacrament, an earthly element that contains within it the life-giving Word and command of God.  Seeds bear in them the creative power of God himself.

The Lord God created a perfect world in the beginning teeming with life;  and seeds were a key part of this great creative plan.  In fact, only twelve verses into the Bible, we read: “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.’”  Seeds have always been integral to God’s creation.  And these seeds were there to give food to mankind and all living creatures. Seeds are the ongoing creative work of God to sustain man and beast alike.

But what did man do?  He abused the seed, he took advantage of God’s gift, eating that which was not sown for him.  And after the Fall, God announced the consequence to man: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”  No more would seeds sprout effortlessly for man.  Now birds would eat what the man has sown–animals no longer living in harmony with man, but in competition. Rocky ground and lack of moisture would make his job harder, making him till and water the ground.  Thorns would entangle the seed and choke it out, requiring constant weeding and hoeing. Good ground would become hard to find, and the man would have to labor hard to eat his bread.

But interestingly, God announces to the devil only a few verses later that a Seed was coming to fix what had been broken.  He tells Satan that the Seed of the woman will crush his head.  The Seed from the body of Eve, the offspring of the very woman who committed the first sin, would come to conquer the Serpent and set the world right again.

The Seed was promised throughout the Old Testament, in particular to people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God said to Abraham, “In you and in your seed all nations on earth will be blessed.”  The prophets reminded God’s people of His promise.  It continued through David who reigned over a prosperous kingdom, and through God’s messengers who saw the Temple destroyed and the people taken captive.  Through wars and conquests, occupation and bloodshed, the promise of the Seed remained alive, passing from generation to generation.

And when the ground was ready, the Seed was finally sown. Unlike any other human seed sown by an earthly father in the natural way, this Seed was sown supernaturally by God Himself, through the Holy Spirit.  The angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and sowed the Seed into her womb through speaking into her ears!  The Seed is none other than the Word of the Father, the only begotten Son of God Himself!  And having been planted, that Seed of the Word became flesh; it germinated in the fertile ground of the Blessed Virgin, and grew into a Man, the fulfillment of God’s promise back in the Garden.  Jesus, the very Word of God, crushed the Serpent’s head in a totally unexpected way: by dying, and rising from the dead. For Christ himself told us that unless a “grain of wheat”–a seed–“falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Fellow believers, hear this clearly: The first three soils in today’s Gospel are descriptive of us.  You are the hardened soil of the wayside, sometimes callous to God’s Word, letting it in one ear and out the other without letting it penetrate your heart, acting as if you’ve heard it all before.  You are the rocky soil, on fire for the faith one minute, withered away in unfaithfulness the next.  You are the thorn-infested soil, all caught up in the pursuit of money and the pleasures of this life, anxious about this and that, forgetting the one thing that’s most needful.  Acknowledge this, repent of it, and believe in Christ.  

For this is the purpose of the Word and why it has been sent to you.  First of all, the seed shows the soil for what it is.  There’s never anything wrong with the seed.  But it’s being cast onto the soil reveals the nature of the soil–hard, rocky, thorn-infested, unfruitful  The soil was surely this before the seed fell on it.  But the seed confirms this judgment.  It pronounces it and manifests how things truly are with us.  It does what it was supposed to do.  It shows how the soil is powerless to change itself.  As Isaiah said, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

But then notice this: The Sower casts the Seed, the Father sends His Son right into the midst of all of this for you, into such corrupted soil.  Jesus is the One who has borne this corruption all for you to take it away from you.  For behold how this Seed falls to the earth, how our Lord suffers on the cross.  Jesus, the Word of God, the Seed, is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body as was often the case with other condemned criminals, who would be left for the animals to consume.  And this Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture.  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  He was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse, and yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence.  For while the Seed did die, He rose again in victory over the devil and the world and our sinful nature.  

So do you see?  By His holy suffering and death and resurrection, our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from bearing fruit.  In Christ you are free from the hardness and the rocks and the thorns.  In Christ and in Him alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted through preaching.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed is in you and with you and for you.

And be sure to notice how the Father sows the seed.  He doesn’t just plant it here or there in soils He deems suitable and acceptable.  He scatters the Seed everywhere, on the good and the bad, the worthy and the unworthy, on all of us.  That is the nature of His love, love that extends to all.  And the Word of God does what God intends it to do. Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven, so the Word of the Lord will not return void or empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. For even in the midst of thorns and thistles, the prophet Isaiah said that cypress and myrtle trees will grow and replace the briars.  

So even though a sermon from a preacher, or a few words spoken over bread and wine, or an announcement of the forgiveness of sins, or a sprinkle of water and the name of God on a sinner’s head don’t look very powerful, they are indeed the very same Seed that crushed the Serpent’s head: the Word of God which is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.”

The Word of God is truly the most powerful thing in creation.  For it brings life and creation into being.  It is far greater than the power of our fiercest weapons or the energy of the sun.  For only the Word of God overcomes death, makes us worthy to stand in the presence of God, and gives us life beyond the grave itself.

Therefore, fellow Christians, let us thank God for his Word, for his Seed.  As Isaiah said, “Go out with joy, and be led out in peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” All of creation rejoices because of the fruit that the Seed bears.  And you are that produce of Christ; you are that fruit that has the seed within it.  In fact Galatians 3 goes so far as to say this, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane for some of the above)

Lord of Justice and Grace

Matthew 20:1-16

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

Is God fair?  If by fair you mean, is God just and righteous, the answer is yes, absolutely.  But if you mean, does he always give us what we deserve, then the answer is no–thankfully so.  For our God is a God of grace as well as justice.  And to illustrate this point, our Lord Jesus tells a parable to teach us how His kingdom works.  

In this story of the workers in the vineyard, a boss goes out in the morning to hire laborers.  As the sun rises, he makes a contract with several laborers for the standard rate of a denarius a day.  And he sent them into his vineyard.  A few hours later, about nine in the morning, he hires another group, but interestingly, their agreement is not for a specific amount but for “whatever is right,” whatever is just and righteous.  And so they went.  The same thing happens at about noon, and then about three.  Finally, at five in the afternoon, with only a single hour left in the workday, the boss hires one last group, and sends them into the vineyard too.

As the sun sets, the foreman brings the workers in to get paid.  The boss says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.”  The guys that worked one single hour received their pay: “each of them received a denarius,” that is, a full day’s wage.  Imagine that!  They were paid for 12 hours, but only actually worked one hour.  So the guys who worked twelve hours, were really looking forward to getting paid.  Surely, they would receive much more, maybe as much as 12 days pay for a single day’s work (if the pay rate was going to be equal).  At the very least in their minds, they should be getting a lot more than what they originally contracted for. “But each of them also received a denarius.”

Now it would seem that Jesus couldn’t possibly approve of this.  It doesn’t seem fair!  After all, those who worked 12 hours “have borne the burden and the heat of the day,” unlike those Johnny-come-latelies who were sitting idle all day, who then only worked an hour in the evening air, and got paid for twelve hours.  When you look at it from the point of view of “equal pay for equal work,” that sounds outrageous.  Maybe this unfair boss is going to be punished in the story.  Maybe he will be forced to pay his workers more fairly.  Jesus has to fix this, right?

But instead, Jesus sides with the boss.  “Friend,” says the business owner to one of the men who worked twelve long hours for a denarius, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you and go your way.  I choose to give to this worker the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I want with my own things?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

That’s an interesting phrase that Jesus concludes the story with, isn’t it?  It’s about the eyes, this grumbling and complaining and discontentment.  It’s about looking at others and making comparisons and finding some reason to be outraged at people and offended at how you’re being treated or how life’s just not fair.  To have an evil eye is to have a covetous eye that is focused always on yourself and what you can gain for yourself.  A person like this can’t be happy for someone else when things go well; they can only engage in grumbling and insults and in pity parties for themselves.  

It’s important to remember in this parable, though, that no one was treated unfairly.  No injustice was done.  The first workers got a fair day’s wage.  That was good and right.  It’s just that the others were the recipients of the landowner’s great generosity.  People might expect that Jesus’ message would be different, that He would side with the workers seeking fairness with management. But Jesus is like the landowner who has every right to do what He wants with His own things and to be generous to whom He wants to be generous.

Now you could make the point here that Jesus is no Socialist, and He does not advocate for the right of workers to make a claim on what does not belong to them, or to violate their contracts.  But, of course, the main point of this parable is not really about politics or economics but about what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  Jesus says that “fairness” according to the ways of the world is not how His kingdom operates.  In fact, it’s turned upside down.  Those who think God owes them something more than what He’s given are gravely mistaken.  His ways are just and gracious.  Who are we to begrudge His generosity to someone?

Here’s really the key spiritual point to take from the Gospel: the difference between the first laborers and the later laborers is that the first had a specific contract, a legal compact, with the landowner, whereas the last workers had nothing specific, just a promise that the landowner would give them whatever is right.  That’s a big difference, isn’t it.  Would you work for someone without knowing in advance what your wage was going to be?  Well, it depends on the character of the one hiring you.  Is the person greedy or generous?  Are they trustworthy or not?  Is it a stingy next door neighbor wanting to get their lawn mowed on the cheap, or is it grandma and grandpa looking for an excuse to give their grandchild a big gift?

So you might say that the first laborers were operating under the Law, and the later laborers were operating under the Gospel.  The first laborers were relying on their own works, the last laborers were living by faith in the goodness of the landowner.  That’s why the last are first, because their confidence is not in themselves but in the Lord and what He does.  Remember what the landowner said, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  The Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever.  

The truth is, we should thank God daily that He doesn’t judge us by what is fair; He doesn’t give us what we deserve.  For we deserve death and hell.   We may be considered good people in a worldly sense.  But how often have we been idle and lazy in doing good works?  Have any of our words or deeds even done damage to the vineyard?  We deserve wrath.  “The wages of sin is death.”  However, because of the work of Jesus and His sacrificial death, God is free to show mercy to us.  He is free to do good to us which we have not merited or deserved.  In the cross of Jesus, justice (what is fair) and grace (what is undeserved) come together.  At Golgotha, the just punishment for sin is carried out.  Justice is done; Jesus pays the price.  And at the same time grace overflows.  Your sins are forgiven; you are treated as if you worked perfectly and tirelessly all day.  The merits of Jesus are credited to you.  “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation.  Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  See how the work was all done for you, simply for you to receive by faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”

One more point: Very often when we hear this parable of the laborers in the vineyard, those of us who have been lifelong Christians and lifelong Lutherans like to think of ourselves as having worked the whole day.  We didn’t come to faith later in life; we were baptized as infants and have been a part of the church right from the very beginning.  And that’s certainly an acceptable application of this parable–although it is also a warning.  Remember what happened to those hired at dawn!  Let us never grumble at the grace of God shown to sinners and to those who repent and receive the denarius of salvation later in life!  

But there’s another way to think about and apply this parable, too.  And that is that we ourselves are actually among the last workers hired.  Those who have really borne the burden and the heat of the day in the Church have come before us in history.  We’re not the ones who fought the early heresies and formed the Scriptural Creeds of the Church.  We’re not the ones who faced the power of emperors and the power of popes, risking death for our faith (though that day may soon be coming).  We’re not the ones who crossed oceans and sacrificed everything to be able to practice our faith and raise our children according to the truth.  We are not the ones who preserved the liturgy and penned the great hymns of the Church.  Truly an astonishingly rich heritage has been handed down to us. And here we are near the close of the age, at the end of the Day, eagerly waiting for the Last Day, relying on the goodness of the Master,  privileged to work in the vineyard and to be a part of the one, holy, Christian, apostolic Church.  Truly, it’s all a gift of God’s grace.

Our Lord does what He chooses with what belongs to Him.  And that is true here again today, as Jesus freely chooses to give you His very body and blood, once offered up as the atoning sacrifice for all of your sins.  Here at the altar you all are paid the denarius of salvation, regardless of how long you’ve been in the vineyard.  For in truth we are all those last fortunate workers who just squeaked in, though we do not deserve it. The Lord is just.  The Lord is gracious.  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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane for some of the above)

The Gift of Marriage in Christ

John 2:1-11; Ephesians 5:22-33

Epiphany 2

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

In today’s Gospel Jesus is taking part in and adding to the joy of a wedding feast, even providing the finest vintage wine for the occasion.  While this Gospel certainly deals with much more than marriage, I’m going to follow the lead of Martin Luther when he preached on this passage and focus especially on the divine gift of holy matrimony.   

 Marriage was a topic that needed to be addressed in Luther’s day, and it’s certainly no different today.  On the surface, it might seem that our situation is completely different.  When it comes to marriage and sexuality, his time and ours would appear to be almost exact opposites.  After all, in the 1500's some of the most honored and looked-up-to people would have been those who were celibate, monks and priests and nuns who had taken a vow of chastity.  Such people were looked upon as especially spiritual and examples to follow for living a good life.  In our time the most honored people, who are thought of as living the good life, are often those who flaunt their sexuality, who might have several sexual partners over time, and who present their sexual freedom as part of what it means for them to live a truly fulfilled life.  Someone today who is celibate or who waits till marriage is generally looked at as a bit unusual or naive or just boring.

And yet, when it comes right down to it, the problem in our day and in Luther’s day with regard to sexuality is at its root the very same problem.  For in both cases God’s good gift of marriage is looked down on and sometimes even rejected outright.  Whether you’re living a celibate life in order to achieve some supposedly higher state of holiness before God, or whether you’re sleeping with someone you’re not married to, even with the best of intentions and justifications, the sin is still the same: you’re rejecting the goodness and the necessity of God’s institution of marriage.  It is within that sanctified estate that His good gift of sexuality is to be enjoyed.  So it’s the same thing: whether a person is prudish about sex and considers it somehow to be dirty, or whether they’re indulgent about sex and are fine with whatever consenting adults want to do, it’s two sides of the same coin.  God’s gift of marriage is being degraded and cast aside.  

However, in today’s Gospel we see that Jesus approves of marriage and blesses it and the sexual relationship within it as good and holy. Marriage is not just a human arrangement or a mere legal matter or piece of paper.  It’s a divine joining together of a man and a woman, an act of God making two people one flesh. That’s why it’s called holy matrimony.  Remember, God created marriage and joined Adam and Eve together before the fall into sin. He’s the One who created us male and female.  God instituted this for the mutual delight and companionship of husbands and wives, and for the creation of new human life when He grants it.  So whether you’re married or single, God teaches you in His Word to honor marriage highly, especially in how you talk about it with friends and family and co-workers.  Raunchy joking about sex does not honor marriage; belittling your spouse does not honor marriage.  Rather, we should remember the great good that God works through this holy estate.

First of all, in marriage (as in all our vocations) God works to protect us from selfishness.  He places a flesh and blood spouse directly before our eyes, with specific and real needs.  God calls us out of a self-absorbed life that invents its own good works into a devoted life that takes care of the spouse He has given.  A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her.  That’s why if a husband is starting to whine that his wife is hard to deal with or that she’s not meeting his “needs,” he should look in the mirror and slap himself in the face.  His job is not primarily to be a receiver but a giver, sacrificing himself for her.  It’s time to man up and focus on how to draw her to yourself again.  And likewise, if a wife is lamenting that her husband is not turning out to be the man she hoped he would be, she should remember this: God’s call to submit to your husband and to respect him is not dependent on how romantic or manly or communicative he’s been lately.  Honor him as your head as the church honors Christ.  With a gentle spirit, keep looking to him to be the man God has called him and declared him to be.  It is God’s intent that through this mutual self-giving, His people would be built up and that selfishness would be put down.

Secondly, in marriage God works to protect us from lust.  The book of Proverbs consistently refers to sexual enticements, pornographic enticements, as one of the chief ways in which people are led into ruin.  In marriage God seeks to protect us from the destructiveness of lust.  St. Paul (who himself was single) counsels all who suffer from lust to marry, for this is God’s good and gracious provision for rendering proper affection one to the other.  This is also one of the reasons why Paul counsels spouses not to withhold themselves from each other for lengthy periods of time.  One of God’s blessings in marriage is the dampening and controlling of lust.

Thirdly, in marriage God seeks to protect us from loneliness.  Through the working of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, we can easily become isolated and cut off.  In marriage God is at work to protect us from that.  When it is His will, He gives us a companion for comfort and camaraderie in life.  In the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”  Adam received Eve as the God-given companion that brought them both completeness.  Such is God’s intention for marriage also today.

Fourthly, through marriage God works to rescue us from doubt.  Although we would like to believe that we always make good decisions in life, we know that sin clouds our heart and mind.  So how can we be certain that we have chosen the right partner?  Through marriage God guards against such doubt by giving you the certainty that He is the One who married you to your spouse; that person is the one the Lord Himself has given you to love and to be committed to, even if they’re far from perfect.  And what the Lord has done stands far above any feelings you may or may not have or any later wondering whether you should have chosen differently.  A man and woman may in freedom choose to marry each other, but what really and finally counts is that it is the Lord who unites them, working through the authorities that He has established.  In this way God protects marriage from doubt with the certainty that He is the One who has made the union.

Fifthly, in marriage God seeks to protect us from the delusion of self-sufficiency.  We tend to think that we can do just fine on our own apart from God.  Without the calling of serving a spouse in marriage (or serving our neighbor in any of our vocations), sinners would perceive even less need for God.  In marriage God protects us from such misguided self-reliance.  He gives husbands and wives the holy calling of serving each other in Christ.  And when husband and wife fail each other, as is bound to happen, God puts His law to work.  He confronts their self-centeredness and their faltering service.  He afflicts their consciences and disturbs their self-sufficiency.  In short, God drives them to depend on Him.  He drives them back to Himself, to find forgiveness, strength, and hope in Christ.  Confession and Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Body and Blood of Christ become their lifeblood, making them right with God and able to serve each other again.

Finally, through marriage God works to preserve society.  Without this institution, the basic unit of society, the family, would crumble.  We see this happening around us, where conflict and chaos and self-will replace His order of family self-giving.  To prevent such evil, God established and blessed marriage from the beginning and said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”  With that creative word, God continues to bless the union of husband and wife so that children are conceived and born.  This, by the way, is one of the key reasons why gay marriage simply cannot and does not exist in God’s sight.  Every child has a father and a mother, male and female.  Every father and mother is given a divine responsibility toward their children and toward one another within the commitment of marriage. Homosexual relationships can only fake that and cannot produce children.  So-called gay “marriage” is fundamentally sterile and lifeless, not because of health reasons or age, but by the very nature of what it is.  God’s purpose in marriage is for husband and wife to serve not only each other but also their children by protecting, providing for, and nurturing them in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Founded upon God’s gift of the family, human society can be more  peaceably ordered.  And this in turn gives a good context for the saving Word of Christ to be preached and taught both in the church and the home.

All of this is God’s good gift.  And all of this is meant to drive us to the greater reality that marriage points to.  The fact of the matter is, to one degree or another, all marriages are broken marriages; for it is two sinners who are united, whose only hope is in the forgiveness of sins that comes from Jesus.  And whether a Christian is single or married, divorced, widowed, young or old, as members of the Church we all are in a marital relationship that rescues and saves us.  For the Church has been united with her holy Groom, Jesus. She is the betrothed of Christ.  In the Epistle today Paul spent a lot of time talking about husbands and wives and marriage.  And then he concludes his comments by saying, “What I’m really talking about though is Christ and the Church.”  Earthly marriage is a sign of the greater and perfect love that God has for His people and the heavenly union that exists between them.

From all eternity, before marriage was instituted, it was planned that Christ would lay down His life for His woman, sacrifice Himself for the church, to save her from her fall into sin.  Adam was put into a deep sleep, and Eve was created from his side.  So also Jesus was put into the sleep of death on the cross, that this new Eve might be created from the sacramental blood and water that flowed from His side.  St. John calls the church “the elect Lady,” chosen and redeemed by Christ.  For Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her by the washing of water with the Word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having any spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.  For all of you whom sin has contaminated, or whose marriages and families are broken, Jesus shed His blood to cleanse you of every sin; He sanctified you and made you holy for Himself by the water and the Word of Baptism.  You stand before God spotless and perfect in the family of His Church, His holy bride.

Just as husband and wife are given in marriage to become one flesh, so our Lord unites Himself to us and makes Himself one flesh with us–one flesh to the extent that you are now members of His body through baptism.  So if He is the Son of God, then you are called sons of God.  If He holds in His hand the riches and treasures of heaven, those treasures are also yours to hold and take to heart.  If He is the Righteous One, then you are declared righteous before God.  If the death He dies no longer holds Him in the grave, then neither can death hold you in the grave.  The Bride shares in everything that belongs to the Groom.  That’s how marriage works with Jesus.  What is His is now yours, too.

This is the joy of the eternal wedding feast that we are given a glimpse of in the Gospel.  The ritual washing water of the Law is turned into the joyous wedding wine of the Gospel.  The best is saved for last, and that best is Jesus–His forgiveness and mercy and life–which are all for you.  Even now in Divine Service the heavenly groom, our Lord Christ, comes to His bride to comfort her.  He speaks to you His words of love.  He remembers the commitment He made to you at Baptism. He gives Himself to you in Holy Communion that you may share fully in His life.

So set aside your doubts and fears and sorrows.  For it is written, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” Come in faith to His table, that you may share in the joy of the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end.

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

(Some of the points above are based on an article written in Gottesdienst by the Rev. Chaplain Jonathan Shaw.)

Bless the Lord, O My Soul

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

    Psalm 103 prays, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits." To bless the Lord here means to thank Him.  We are gathered now on this holiday precisely for that purpose, that we might remember and give thanks to the Lord for all the benefits He has bestowed on us.

    For we know all too well how prone we are to forget the Lord and His blessings. We forget because we’re all wrapped up in our own little worlds. We forget because we're tempted to think that it's to our own credit that we've gotten where we are in life.  It is as Moses warned Israel, "Beware, lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.' You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth." Then Moses counsels us, "When you have eaten and are satisfied, bless the Lord your God for the good land He has given you." Don't be so wrapped up in the things of creation that you forget your Creator. Honor Him as the Source of all that is good.  

    Romans 1 describes ingratitude as one of the key characteristics of unbelief.  “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  And Martin Luther famously and prophetically warned the Germans of his day what would happen for lack of thanksgiving, something which we in this nation should also take to heart: “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. . .  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.”null

    “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.” First of all, forget not the daily bread God provides you, the material gifts which He has granted you. In the Small Catechism we confess that "daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like."
We might include in that list a number of things we too often take for granted like indoor plumbing and plug-in electricity and computers and antibiotics and fresh produce throughout the winter months.  All of that and more is a gift from the Lord.

    God has given you all that you are and all that you have. You may have worked for some or even most of it, but who gave you the ability to work? Who gave you your ability to think and speak and see and hear? Who continues to sustain your bodies and sustain this nation in such a way that you can enjoy these created blessings? It is not mother nature; it is Father God, who together with the Son and the Holy Spirit is the one true God, the Blessed Holy Trinity. God does all of this for you–not because you've earned it or deserved it, but simply because He is good and merciful. He is your Father, a God of love who revels in giving you His good gifts.

    Again, we confess in the Catechism, "God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people. But we pray . . . that God would lead us to realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving." God doesn't ask us to pray for daily bread as a condition of our receiving it, and if we don’t ask nicely, He’s not going to provide.  No, God asks us to pray for daily bread so that we'll be reminded where it comes from; to Him is due all the credit and praise.  But God even sustains and cares for those who don't recognize Him as the Giver. That's because God is so good, He even provides for the needs of those who reject Him, that seeing His kindness they might come to repent and believe and be saved.

    But then the question arises: What about when it seems that God's kindness has been taken from us and the provision of daily bread seems to be failing? What about when wars or famines occur or the economy and our financial situation doesn't look so good? What about when the vision and the hearing fail and the health deteriorates? What about when people turn against us? Do we still have anything to give thanks for? Can we still say, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits"? The answer is: Absolutely, yes!

    To be sure, in this fallen world we are bound to experience troubles of various sorts. Temporal blessings are just that, temporary. Sin ruins everything in the end, from international relations right down to our very bodies. Through these things God seeks to humble us and turn us back to Himself.  The fact that God restrains the effects of evil as much as He does in this world and protects us and allows us to enjoy anything is a sign of His mercy.

    But the greatest and truest sign of God's kindness toward us, the greatest benefit for which we give thanks to the Lord, is that He has granted us every eternal blessing in His Son, Jesus Christ. Sin may eventually ruin everything in this world. But our Lord conquered sin in His death on the cross, and through His resurrection He has made all things new. Jesus has redeemed this fallen creation from the curse by bearing the curse in His body. He broke the curse on Good Friday and set us free to live in a never-ending Easter of life and immortality.

    In Jesus we have not only daily bread, but the Living Bread from heaven, His life-giving flesh and blood which He offered up for the world. In Him we have not only earthly clothing, but the robe of His righteousness which we were given to wear at the font. In Him we have not only a temporary house to live in, but an eternal home which He is preparing for us.

    That is how St. Paul, when He was in jail for preaching the Gospel, could say, "I have learned the secret of being content in any situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength." Even when Paul was beaten and deprived of everything but the clothes on his back, he still had Christ. And the fact of the matter is that if we have Christ, we have everything. For all things belong to the risen Christ, and through Christ the Father will graciously give us all things.

    Is there no peace in this world or in your relationships? In Christ you have the peace that passes all understanding to guard your hearts and minds, the peace that comes from the full and free forgiveness of your sins, the reconciliation of being restored to the Father. Does financial difficulty threaten you? In Christ you are made rich with the promise that God will never leave you or forsake and with heavenly treasures that will never pass away. Do certain enemies harass you or make you fearful? In Christ you have deliverance from all enemies by His crushing of the devil's head at Calvary. Is your health failing? In Christ you have perfect health in the resurrection of the body. Has death separated you from a loved one? In Christ you have a joyous reunion with those you love who have departed in the faith. If you have Jesus, you have it all–by faith now, by sight when He comes again.

    Our thanksgiving is not based primarily on the circumstances of our life.  Our thanksgiving is based first and foremost on our relationship with God, which has been reconciled through the precious blood of the Lamb of God.  Every single one of us, then, has reason to give thanks to God this day, because when it comes to the most important things, eternal things, we've been blessed beyond our comprehension.

    The true worship of God is to give Him thanks.  In the end that’s just about all that we can truly give to Him, anyway, since He’s the source of all things.  We say it all the time in the liturgy, “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord.”  Let us, then,  call on His name and give Him thanks for our daily bread, for family and friends, for this great land, but above all, for the holy cross, for His saving Gospel and life-giving Sacraments, and for the real and everlasting life that we have in Him. Let us say with the Psalmist, this day and every day, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits."

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

Real Forgiveness Isn't Easy

Matthew 18:21-35
Trinity 22

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

    Most of us would like to believe that we’re pretty forgiving people. As a rule we’re not angry and vengeful and bitter.  We’re nice; we’re forgiving.  But we need to be careful that we’re not fooling ourselves and misunderstanding this.  When someone says to us that they’re sorry, we think we’re being forgiving when we say, “Oh, don’t worry about it.  No big deal.  It’s alright.”  But brushing something off is not the same thing as forgiveness.  That’s just a way of saying you don’t think it’s all that bad.  It didn’t do any permanent damage. You can forget about it and overlook it.  The true test of forgiveness is when something is genuinely truly bad in our estimation, when some real harm was done.  That’s when we start obsessing about the matter.  That’s when we start talking about certain things being unforgivable.  The truth is that you can only call yourself forgiving if you let go of things that genuinely hurt you and don’t desire payback.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.

    It’s very similar in many ways to the practice of tolerance.  Lots of people like to think of themselves as tolerant nowadays.  “I’m not bigoted against other religions or other cultures or LGBT lifestyles.  I’m a tolerant person!”  But when you ask these people, it turns out that they don’t really think there’s anything particularly wrong with any of that in the first place.  So that’s not actually tolerance at all.  You can only tolerate something which you find to be wrong or distasteful or that you disagree with.  You can’t tolerate something and celebrate it at the same time.  Real tolerance sounds more like this, when Jesus said, “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; pray for those who spitefully use you.”  Real tolerance is more like a Christian showing love and kindness to someone in spite of their immorality or unbelief.  null

    In the same way, if you forgive something you don’t really care about, that’s no real virtue.  It’s one thing to forgive and let go of someone’s failure to show up precisely on time for an appointment.  It’s quite another thing to forgive and let go of things that others have done which you find to be detestable–betrayal, sexual molestation, alcoholism, abuse, criminal behavior, abortion.  The only things that you can forgive are things you consider to be real, actual sins.  

    I’m emphasizing this point because in today’s Gospel, it can be easy for us to minimize the debt that the second servant owed the first servant, the 100 denarii.  We say, “Well of course the man should have forgiven his fellow servant!  That was such a small debt compared to what he had just been forgiven.”  But it was still 100 days’ worth of wages.  That’s what a denarius is, a full day’s wage.  That’s more than three months’ pay!  It doesn’t do us any good to ignore the depth of the debt, to deny the gravity of the sins against us that we or others have suffered.  To be sure, it’s not right to hold on to those sins; but neither is it right to pretend like they’re nothing either.  They can create very real bitterness and anger and resentment and fear in fallen creatures like us, a very real desire to grab our neighbor by the throat and say, “Pay me what you owe, now!  An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth!”

    Sins have been committed against us which have genuinely hurt us.  But if that is so, think how much more we have committed sins which have genuinely caused pain to our God.  If the wrongs we’ve endured are only 100 denarii, imagine how deep our debt toward God is, our countless rebellions and idolatries, which are described as 10,000 talents!  Just a single talent, just one is the equivalent of 6,000 denarii, more than 18 years worth of wages–and that’s just one talent!  10,000 talents, in other words, is a way of describing a debt that is incalculable, unpayable.  For my part, at least, that means I don’t fully grasp the gravity of my own sin.  And you don’t fully grasp the gravity of your sin.  That’s how sin works.  It blinds us to the utter severity of our own condition.  We are all in the most desperate need of forgiveness from God.

    And that’s where it all must begin.  Without a humble stance as beggars before God, we will never be able to act with lowliness and gentleness toward our neighbor and forgive him.  We must all come before our God and King and acknowledge that even if He gave us 100 years, we couldn’t even begin to make a dent in our debt.  In fact all our attempts would only dig that hole deeper.  We are bankrupt; we are utterly dependent on His mercy to forgive us, or we are lost forever.

    All thanks and praise be to God, then, that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God has taken pity on us and canceled our debt.  He didn’t just reduce what we owed and put us on an interest-free payment plan.  No, the debt is completely erased.  It’s gone.  You are debt free.  

    But be sure to understand, the debt still has to be paid; just not by you.  The sin-debt is very real; and so the payment also must be very real.  Real forgiveness isn’t easy.  Someone has to absorb the debt.  And that person is the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.  God the Son became a human being in order to pay what we humans owed.  But since He is also God, the payment He earned was infinite, even as God Himself is infinite.  Jesus took on Himself your debt, your sins, and they were crucified with Him.  By dying in your place, Jesus settled your account with God forever–not with talents of gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  And by rising again to life, Christ has restored you to life again with the heavenly Father.  All this has been done without any merit or worthiness in you but only because of God’s fatherly goodness and mercy.  You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God.  Forgiveness has overflown to you.  Like the servant, you’ve been given a new life, a new start.

    Since that is true, since God has answered for all sin at Calvary, since it’s all covered by Jesus’ blood, who are we to act otherwise?  Who are we to hold onto what God has let go of and dealt with and done away with, whether it’s our own sin or somebody else’s?

    The first servant in the Gospel failed to understand this.  He didn’t seem to see the connection between how his debt had been forgiven by the mercy of the king, and how therefore he was also to be forgiving toward others.  How could the servant behave so strangely the way he did?  Perhaps it was just that he was completely selfish and self-absorbed.

     Or perhaps it was because he didn’t really trust that his debt was truly forgiven.  Still in the back of his mind he was thinking, “This can’t actually be true.  Sooner or later, the king’s going to be coming for me, and I better build up as much in the way of assets as I possibly can, so that maybe I’ll have a little bargaining power.”  Do you see?  If the servant truly believed that the debt was forgiven, he would have been like a renewed Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Day, a new man, giving away and passing on with cheer the same compassion he himself had received.  Instead he didn’t believe it; he didn’t walk by faith.  And so he put himself outside the king’s mercy by his actions and ended up suffering the king’s judgment.  

    To forgive is to believe that Jesus really did atone for all sin and pay all debts.  Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I just can’t forgive myself.”  It seems to me that what they’re really saying is, “I can’t believe that God could ever forgive me.  This is going to stay with me forever.  I should be punished or have to make up for it somehow.”  And so they still end up living according to the law of retribution, toward themselves and toward others.  But God has truly forgiven you, of everything–and not only what you’ve done, but also the sin that has been done to you.  He bore your abuse and your humiliation, too, and whatever pollutions you’ve had to endure.  All of that He took away from you; all of that He put to death on the cross.  You are clean again.  You are righteous. To forgive is not to condone the wrongdoing; it’s not to deny the pain caused or the damage done.  Rather, it’s to acknowledge it for all that it is, and to place the matter in God’s hands, the hands that were stretched out in death to take away the power of sin.  Because of that you are now freed to forgive others in the seventy times seven way of the Gospel–not by your own power but by the power and mercy of Christ.

    Just as God has forgiven the whole world through Christ, even those who won’t repent and believe and be saved, so also in Christ we forgive even those who won’t say they’re sorry or be reconciled to us.  Forgiveness is not dependent on the repentance of the person who committed the sin but on the actions and the attitude of the one who was sinned against.  You can forgive someone even if the other person hasn’t changed.  Isn’t that how it is with God?  God has forgiven the whole world’s sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s all covered.  People may still reject that and refuse to believe that and live outside of that forgiveness; but that’s on them.  If they are eternally condemned, it’s because of their own unbelief.  But what we are given to do is to stand with Christ and offer His mercy.  No human sin is greater than God’s divine forgiveness.  And it is by His forgiveness that we forgive others.  When someone does us harm, we remember, “Jesus paid for that sin, too. And if He paid for their sin, it’s no use for me to behave as if He didn’t.”

    So in your marriages and in your families and with your friends, get in the habit first of all of saying “I’m sorry.”  Don’t justify or excuse what you’ve done or immediately go into defense mode.  Be willing to open yourself up to the truth of what you’ve done or failed to do.  And then even more importantly, get in the habit of explicitly saying to the other, “I forgive you.”  “I’m not going to hold this over you.”  There’s vulnerability there also, on both sides of the equation.  But only in this way is there genuine and lasting reconciliation.  

    Real forgiveness will always be hard.  But all the truly hard stuff was done by Jesus, all sins done to death in His body–atoned for, punished, taken away, released and gone.  So when you find it difficult to forgive, or when you find yourself feeling unforgiving again toward a person you’ve once forgiven, the way to deal with that is to return to the cross.  You can’t forgive someone from your heart when your heart is empty.  Fill it with the merciful, debt-releasing words of Christ in Scripture.  Fill it with the sanctifying flood that flows to you from your Baptism into Christ the crucified.  And be filled once again with Jesus’ body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness and cleansing of all sins.

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

Jesus Doesn't Fit the World's Categories

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Matthew 22:34-46
Trinity 18

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

    The Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees.  The Pharisees liked that.  For they and the Sadducees were in opposing camps.  The Sadducees were sort of like the liberal theologians of our day.  They accepted the books of Moses, but they didn’t believe in the existence of angels or life after death or the resurrection of the body.  The Pharisees did believe in all of those things, and they were glad when Jesus could be used as ammunition against their rivals–anything that would advance their power and their agenda.  Putting it into our terms, the Pharisees were the conservatives, with their emphasis on living a righteous life according to the Law, and the Sadducees were the liberals, the more culturally elite and powerful.

    We know well what it’s like to live in a world where everything has political overtones like that.  There aren’t many areas of life left where you aren’t pressured to take up sides with this or that group.  Relationships with co-workers or friends or family are full of land mines if certain issues of religion or sexuality or gender come up.  Entertainers seem to be focused less on entertaining and more with political mocking and virtue signaling.  Even in the once politics-free realm of sports, political causes are often the focus, and everyone feels compelled to take up sides for this or against that.  Everything we do now is seen through the political lens of privilege or race or gender or class.  In an era where objective truth has largely been abandoned, all that’s left is power.  Have you ever noticed how often that term is used, how people feel they need to be “empowered?”  Power is the realm of politics and control and one group asserting itself against another.null

    But this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus is not one who was after political power.  He was not merely trying to win a victory for some group or some cause, and so He can’t really be categorized politically.  Was He a conservative or a liberal or a moderate?  Just when one group or another thought that He was their man, Jesus would say something to prove that He wasn’t.

    So for instance, just before today’s Gospel Jesus said something that the conservative Pharisees didn’t like.  They had asked him about whether or not they should be paying taxes to the foreign occupiers, the Roman government.  And Jesus famously said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus sounded a little bit pro-establishment.

    So then the establishment Sadducees came to Him, perhaps perceiving an opening.  But Jesus exposed the foolishness of their disbelief in life after death or the resurrection.  The true God whom they claimed to worship is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”  Jesus was no friend of these establishment leaders, then, either.  Our Lord wouldn’t have been a delegate at any of these groups’ political conventions.

    Like the people in His day, we also want to label Jesus and fit Him into our categories so that we can handle Him and manage Him–Jesus as a republican or a democrat or a free-love libertarian, Jesus as a capitalist or a socialist.  You’ll notice that even unbelievers try to get Jesus on their side and will quote the Bible they never read to support their particular cause.  But Jesus defies all our attempts to make His Word fit our worldly agendas and ideologies.  For as soon as we try to do that, we are making ourselves to be Lord and Master, and Jesus becomes merely the means to achieve our goals.  And that’s not how it works.  Jesus remains the Lord, and His Word is sent to accomplish His purposes, not ours.  If the God you worship agrees with everything you already believed, it’s probably not God you’re worshiping, but yourself.

    “Teacher,” the Pharisees asked, “which is the great commandment in the law?”  It was a question intended to categorize Jesus and support their self-righteous thinking.  It treated the Scriptures like a textbook rather than the living, Spirit-filled words of God.  Our Lord would not play the Pharisees’ game or submit to their litmus test.  So instead of choosing a single commandment, He summarized them all.  Since love is the fulfillment of the law, Jesus answers in two parts.  First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  That’s not something you can reduce down to a bunch of do’s and don’ts.  For that Law commands you to love God with every fiber of your being, all that you are, with nothing held back from Him.  He wants the entire devotion of your heart; all of your allegiance to be with Him alone.

    And in case someone thinks that loving God means leaving ordinary life and your fellow man, He goes on, “And the second (great commandment) is like (the first): ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  These two go hand in hand.  The love of God and the love of the neighbor are inseparable.  For God seeks to be loved in your neighbor.  The Lord Jesus–who took up our nature and truly shares in our humanity–He is present therefore in all those around us, particularly those in need, to receive our acts of kindness and self-giving.  As the proverb says, “He who gives to the poor lends to the Lord.”  That’s why Jesus says that the commands are alike: Because God is served both in love for Him and in love for the neighbor.

    And this is where the living voice of the Law nails you.  It exposes your lovelessness.  It lays bare your self-satisfying motivations when you do engage in good works.  It brings nothing but judgment and death.  It calls you all to repent and to turn to Christ.

    For Jesus then gets us back on the track that leads to salvation and life.  The Pharisees had asked a manipulative Law question, but now Jesus asks a freeing Gospel question, not one that focuses on us, but one that focuses on who He is.  Jesus gets us away from religious philosophizing and political debates between this or that group, and instead He leads us to meditate on the personhood of the Messiah Redeemer.  Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah?  Whose Son is He?”  They said to Him, “The Son of David.”  And that was correct.  God had promised King David in the Old Testament that the Messiah would be one of His descendants.

    Jesus then asks them this question, “How then does David in the Spirit call the Messiah ‘Lord’ in one of the Psalms?”  You see, under ordinary circumstances in Jewish culture it would be the son who refers to the father as lord or master, not the other way around.  And yet here David, the father and the great ancestor of the Christ, refers to his descendant as Lord.  Jesus asks them, “Why is that?”  Just as the Pharisees had tried to trap Jesus into a debate with a Law question, Jesus here tries to “trap” them into thinking about the truth of the Gospel with this question, to get them to see the saving reality of who He is.

    The Jews had been conceiving of the Messiah as a combination of a great prophet and a powerful political leader, but always in the end only a man.  But Jesus here leads us to see that while He is truly human, He is more than just a man.  David calls Him lord and master because Jesus, his literal descendant, is also truly and fully God.  The Son of David is the everlasting Son of  God.

    Here, then, is where the good news is for us.  Jesus, thankfully, does not come in a way that fits into our political or social categories or according to the expectations of whatever groups we align ourselves with.  He comes not in the way of fallen man but in the way of His perfect humanity.  Jesus is the only man in whom God’s love is perfectly embodied.  Jesus kept the Law perfectly for us and in our place.  He loved His heavenly Father with all His heart, with all His soul, and with all His mind, devoting Himself entirely to doing His Father’s will.  And Jesus loved His neighbor as Himself.  He gave Himself completely to those around Him, healing them, helping them, teaching them saving truth.  In the end He gave His life away, laying it down for us on the cross.  There is no greater love than that a man lay down His life for His friends; and you are His friends whom He died for.  Through that perfect act of love and self-giving, Jesus won for you the full forgiveness of your sins.  

    Jesus said that on these two commandments of love hang all the Law and the prophets.  Jesus, who is love in the flesh, hangs on the cross for you to fulfill the Law of love perfectly.  Baptized into Him, the Law’s condemnation is taken away from you, as Romans 8 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  You are free, released, forgiven, right with God in Christ.  His self-sacrifice has rescued you from judgment and has brought you everlasting life.  For Jesus has made your enemies to be His enemies–sin and death and the devil–and by rising from the grave He has made them His footstool.  The grave is conquered; sin is taken away; Satan’s head is crushed.  All of this which you know only by faith you will see with your own eyes at Jesus’ return–when He who is at God’s right hand is revealed in all His glory, and all things that are under His feet will be put under your feet with Him.  

    So remember that our Lord Jesus works not in the way of power politics but in the way of sacrificial self-giving.  He doesn’t tell people what they want to hear in order to gain a larger following than the other side has and more power for Himself.  He tells us the truth of our sin and the truth of His blood-bought forgiveness, so that He might draw us to Himself, that we might be His own special, chosen, and beloved people and live with Him in His kingdom.  He’s not in the business of labeling people based merely on some worldly identity of race or sex or privilege or economic status.  Rather, He gives us all our true and eternal identity as the baptized, as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified.  For it is written in Revelation of those in heaven that they are from every tribe and nation and people and language.  We all are given to stand before the throne of God saying, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain whose blood set us free to be children of God!”  

    This Jesus, the Lamb of God, is present here now–not to rally a political following but to be pure love in the flesh for you, giving you His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  Here is living theology, where the love of God and love of the neighbor all come together in Christ, love’s flesh and blood.  You are sanctified and cleansed in Christ Jesus.  You are saints before God as the epistle said–not because of the Law and what you have done, but because of the Gospel and what Jesus has done.  Continue, therefore, to believe in Him and cling to Him, eagerly waiting for His return.  For He will confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God is faithful; He will do it.

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

The Sabbath Work of the Lord

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Luke 14:1-14

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

    It was the Sabbath day.  Jesus had been invited to eat at the house of one of the religious leaders.  But the invitation was not necessarily extended to honor Jesus.  The Gospel says that they were watching Jesus closely, scrutinizing Him to see if they might be able to find some problem with Him.  

    Now there was a particular man at this meal who had what the Scriptures call “dropsy.”  Today we would call it “edema”  a condition where fluid collects in the joints and the tissues causing severe swelling.  Some of you have had to deal with something like that with the swelling of your feet or legs or arms.  We can take water pills for it nowadays.  Of course, back then, there was no such thing.  And this man’s condition was probably worse than mere water retention.  It was something that would’ve caused a good deal of suffering, both because of the physical pain and because of the outward disfigurement that resulted.null

    And so Jesus, knowing the thoughts of those at the table with Him, answers their thinking by asking them a question.  “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”  You see, the religious leaders had taken God’s command not to work on the Sabbath and had made up all sorts of additional rules about what was permissible and what was not.  For instance, they said you could only travel so far on the Sabbath, and if you went beyond a certain number of steps, you were sinning.  And oddly enough, one of the things they considered inappropriate work was healing on the Sabbath.  They thought Jesus should do that on the other six days of the week.  And so Jesus asks, “Is it allowed, do I have permission and authority to heal on the Sabbath?”

    The religious leaders were non-committal and kept silent.  In their silence Jesus took the man and healed him and released him.  The translation in our Gospel says that Jesus “let him go,” giving the impression that the man then left the meal.  But the Greek word here literally means “released.”  What the Gospel is saying is that Jesus released this man from his ailment.  He set him free from that which had held him in bondage.  Jesus took away one of the effects of sin for this man.  For He came for that very purpose of overcoming the curse by the cross.  Jesus still has that authority among His people today, to release you from the bondage of sin and Satan and the grave, to set you free by His forgiveness.

    Jesus asks those at the table another question.  “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?”  “That’s work.  And yet you’d do that.  How much more should I heal this human being who is in the pit of a bodily ailment and pain.”  And they couldn’t answer Him back or come up with any coherent response.

    The religious leaders were wrong about the Sabbath for two reasons.  First of all, they failed to recognize what Jesus said on a different occasion, namely, that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.  The Sabbath was a day to rest the body and especially to hear of what God had done for His people, to meditate on His Word.  It was meant for the good of His people, not as something to enslave them.  The Pharisees had made man the servant of the Sabbath rather than the other way around as it was supposed to be.  It is always lawful to do good and to show mercy on the Sabbath.  No law supercedes the law of love.

    And secondly, the religious leaders were also wrong about the Sabbath because they failed to see that in Christ God was the one doing the work here.  And He is the Lord of the Sabbath.  For Christ to heal on the Sabbath is perfectly in keeping with the intent of the day, since the Sabbath is all about people stopping their work to focus on God’s work.  That’s what the Sabbath was about in the Old Testament, and that’s what it’s still about today in the New Testament: You stop your work so that you may receive God’s work for you in Christ.

    Now it is true that in the Old Testament the day of rest had to be the 7th day of the week, namely, Saturday.  But with Christ’s coming the Law was fulfilled so that the requirement to worship on a particular day no longer applies.  Colossians 2 says, “Sabbaths are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”  The Old Testament day of rest pointed us forward to Him who is Himself our rest and our peace, namely, Jesus.  Why focus on all the Old Testament shadows when the One who is casting the shadow has come!  Now we may worship on any day of the week, as long as the center of that worship is the Word of the Savior who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  The Sabbath is all about Jesus.  The church has chosen Sunday as its primary day of worship because that is the day of our Lord’s resurrection by which He won for us eternal rest and peace in heaven.

    Perhaps you’ve noticed that the meaning to the third commandment in the catechism doesn’t mention anything about a day of the week, but rather states, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”  The Sabbath day is about you stopping your work and letting God do His work on you and for you.  And God’s work is to preach His words of repentance and forgiveness, to lead you to see your sin and to bring you to faith in Christ who died to make full payment for your sin.  Coming to church is not your opportunity to do something for God; it’s God’s opportunity to do something for you.

    The fact of the matter is that when it comes to spiritual and eternal things, you cannot do anything for God anyway.  You are like that donkey or that ox that has fallen into the pit and cannot get out.  You are in bondage to sin and death, and not matter how much you paw at the sides, you can’t get up over the edge and free.  But Christ comes along on the Sabbath and by the power of His suffering and His resurrection, He pulls you out of the pit, releasing you, giving you new life through the preaching of His Word of forgiveness and through the supper of His living body and blood.

    That’s why it’s so important for every one of you to be here in divine service every week–not because it’s some burdensome requirement as the Pharisees made it, but because Jesus is still exercising His authority to heal and restore you on the Sabbath.  This is for your spiritual and eternal good, not only that you may rest your bodies by taking a day off from work, but so that in resting you may receive God’s work for you in Christ His Son.  It’s no wonder that so many people find it so hard to find rest and peace when they cut themselves off from the source of their rest and peace by staying away from preaching and the supper.  If they’re not working on the Lord’s day, they sleep in, or they take part in various sorts of recreation and relaxation.  But all of that is only temporary.  When it’s over they’re back to the same restless, peaceless way of life and daily grind that they had before.  They don’t yet know the peace and the rest which passes all understanding and which transcends all the daily troubles of this life.  There is no greater calm that one’s conscience can have than in hearing and believing that your sins are forgiven through the shedding of Christ’s blood, that you are reconciled to God in Jesus.  He is on your side.  He is with you every day that you must yet live in this troubled and fallen world, and He will surely bring you to Himself to share in the fullness of His life in heaven.  That’s the sure word of Christ to you today.  That is your Sabbath rest, the work of Jesus for you.

    Since the Sabbath is all about God’s work, what Jesus is doing, it is necessary that we come before Him with an attitude of humility.  It’s not about us and our works.  This is His show, His teaching, His meal.  Our place at the table is not something for us to take but for Him to give.  We all come before God as beggars, without any right to exalt ourselves in His presence.  No one here is greater or lesser than another.  Whatever we are is a gift of His grace.  

    So instead of jockeying for the places of honor at the table and in this world, Jesus says, “When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’  Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you.”  Humble yourself before God.  Acknowledge your sin in true repentance, trusting in His mercy.  Do not come to assert your spiritual rights, but come recognizing that it is the Lord’s place to bestow honor and glory, and it your place simply to receive what His good and gracious will gives.  Those who love and honor the Lord in humble faith will be exalted by Him and brought to everlasting glory in the presence of the whole creation.

    Jesus put Himself in the lowest place, the place of death, in order to save you.  He bore your shame on the cross to restore your honor.  And now Jesus is exalted to the highest place at the right hand of the Father.  And the good news is that He has raised you up with Himself.  By your baptismal faith you are united with Him in such a way that you share in His exaltation as members of His body.  Remember, this is a wedding feast that Jesus speaks of.  It is the celebration of His holy union with the Church, His bride.  And if He is honored, then she also is honored with Him.

    Even now Jesus is here among us at the head of the table.  To every penitent heart He says, “Friend, go up higher.”  “Come, ascend these steps to this holy place.  Share in My honor by receiving My own body and blood.  Be filled with My forgiveness and My life.  Here is your Sabbath rest and healing.  Here is the foretaste of that Last Day when in the resurrection you will go up higher forever.”

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