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Are You Not of More Value Than They?

Matthew 6:24-34
Trinity 15

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

    In today’s Gospel Jesus says that you are worth more than the birds of the air.  He says, “Are you not of more value than they?”  And the implied answer is “Yes, you are!”  But why is that exactly?  Why are you of more value than the sparrow or the raven or the eagle?  The fact is that some today would say that you’re not.  A growing number in our climate change culture would say that human beings have no more value than any other animal, or even plants and trees.  It’s more important to protect unhatched eagle eggs than it is to protect unborn children.  An animal has just as much of a right to make its home in a particular habitat as we do to make our home there.  Now of course, it’s true that we do have the responsibility to be good caretakers and stewards of God’s creation.  But the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) message that is communicated is that you’re actually not more valuable than the birds, especially since there are so many of you humans.  You’re no more valuable than a dog or a dolphin or an ancient tree.  You’re just an incredibly minor blip on the evolutionary timeline.

    Where is that we are to find our value and our worth?  With all our concern about teaching self-esteem, kids realize as they grow up that being told that they’re wonderful and awesome and special all the time doesn’t really mean much unless it’s based on something real.  What is it that makes you worth something?  We often try to find the answer by looking to our own qualities–our intelligence or our good looks or our creativity and talents.  Or we define our worth by our value to others–I’m needed at my job, or I have an important role in my family, or my friends and neighbors depend on me.  And that’s all fine and good.  But what happens if you begin to lose your mental acuity or your money or your looks?  What happens if you’re no longer needed at your job, and your family and friends don’t depend on you as much as they once did?  Have you suddenly lost your worth?  Certainly not!null

    The one who defines your true worth is not you or others, but God Himself.  Your value comes from the Holy Trinity and is grounded in Him.  The fact that He loves you makes you lovely.  The fact that He treasures you makes you a treasure.  Jesus says to each of you here, from the unborn to the aged, “You are of more value and worth than you can fully know.”

    You who are gathered here are children of the heavenly Father, as we just sang.  And don’t discount that phrase or make it into some generic platitude.  You get to address the God of all creation, the Almighty Maker of the universe, as Father, Dad.  You are His children.  You have the key to the house.  You have the code to the garage door.  You have a spot at the table.  

    Here are three reasons why you get to call yourselves children of God.  First, He created you.  He knit you together in your mother’s womb.  And when He hand-made you like that, He did so in His own image.  That’s one of the key things that distinguishes you from the animals.  No animal was created in God’s image; but you were.  You’re not just a highly developed animal; you’re a reflection of God Himself.  

    Now it is true that this image has been broken in you because of your sin; and that’s no small thing.  Like a shattered mirror, the image we reflect is disjointed and distorted and all out of place.  We’re all bent and turned in ourselves, like something from a fun house mirror in a horror movie.  But that brings us, then, to the second reason why we are children of the heavenly Father: Jesus has restored the image of God to our humanity.  This, too, is what distinguishes us from every other creature.  The Son of God did not become any of the animals, or even an angel.  The only Son of the Father, through whom all things were created, entered into His creation and took our humanity into Himself, becoming a true flesh and blood man.  And in that way humanity was restored.  Colossians 1 says that Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God.  Jesus wasn’t just born in the image of God; He is the image of God.  And so that image has been imprinted again on our humanity in Him.  

    If that doesn’t give you a sense of value and worth, I don’t know what will.  The Son of God has made Himself to be your flesh and blood, your blood brother.  He died in the flesh for you as your substitute to break sin’s curse; He shed His blood on the cross to cleanse you and reconcile you to the Father.  He rose again with His truly human body to restore your humanity to the fullness of life with God forever.  No other creature in the universe can say that!  Only human beings, only you can say that God shares in your nature in the person of Jesus.  

    And it gets even better.  Here’s the third thing, the clincher: this crucified and risen Jesus,  who is the image of God–you have been baptized into Him.  You are literally in the image of God, in Jesus, God’s Son, and so you truly are children of God through Him.  There’s only one child of God, one Son of God.  But through your baptismal union with Him, you are all brothers and sisters of Christ, and therefore you are children of the heavenly Father.  Here is something that gives you the greatest value: God Himself chose you personally and adopted you at the font.  He put His name on you by water and the Word.  Think of it in terms of an auction.  If no one’s bidding, the item is worth little or nothing.  But when the billionaire steps in and shows interest, the item’s value skyrockets.  God has stepped in and shown more than just an interest in you.  He has bought you and claimed you as His own and brought you into the household through Christ.  The family name is yours.  You are royalty in the house of the King of kings.

    So, the question Jesus asks in today’s Gospel, then, is pointed: “Why do you worry. . .?”  The only way that you can worry is if you forget who you are in Christ and whom you belong to and start living as if mammon is your lord rather than God, as if the things of creation determine your identity and your worth rather than your Creator and Redeemer.  Your heavenly Father knows what you need.  Romans 8 says, “If God did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”  

    To live in the way of worry is to live like the pagans, who believe it all depends on their planning and efforts and manipulation and control of the powers that be.  Their focus is on this world, so full of change and decay, rather than on Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and forever and trusting in Him.  Jesus Himself exhorts us, “Do not worry about tomorrow.  Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”

    We seek first the things of God, because He sought us first.  He seeks first your salvation.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the old perishable order of things has passed away and all things have become new.  You who are in Christ are righteous in God’s sight, a new creation.

    In this new creation our Lord clothes and feeds you marvelously and abundantly.  Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.”  Don’t be anxious about such things, because Christ faithfully gives you to eat of His body and drink of His blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  Your life is forever safeguarded by His own life which He puts into you under the bread and wine.  How can you worry about daily bread when you are given to partake of the Living Bread which came down from heaven?  Any anxiety you may have about your life must fade into the background as you hear Christ's words, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

    Likewise , our Lord also says, “(Do not worry) about your body, what you will put on.”  You need not be anxious about clothing, either, for it is written, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  You were robed in Christ’s righteousness at the font, the garments of the Savior that will never wear out or fade in glory as worldly fashions do.  How can you fret about clothes when you’ve been given such divine, royal apparel?

    In fact, we eagerly await the day when we can be rid of our mortal clothing–this perishable flesh and blood–and put on our new and everlasting clothing in the resurrection of the body.  It is written in 1 Corinthians 15, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. . .  Then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ . . .  Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    This is your true identity.  This is where your value and worth come from, from the work of the Blessed Holy Trinity for you.  The Father Himself made you and formed you in your mother’s womb; you’re His handiwork.  The Son redeemed you by sharing fully in your humanity, sacrificing His flesh and blood on your behalf.  And the Holy Spirit has sanctified you, clothing you with Christ, bringing you to faith and into the family of God.  You are of the greatest value and worth to Him.  And that means that the life He has given you in this world has real purpose and value as you live in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another.  Even your ordinary daily vocations are rich with meaning, because God Himself is at work in and through you for the good of your neighbor.

    Therefore, brothers and sisters of Christ, do not worry.  Let your fears be turned to faith.  Let your anxiety be turned to confidence in the Father’s loving care.  Cast all your care on Him, for He cares for you.  The One who even looks after the sparrow says in Matthew 10, “Do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows.”

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

Jesus Calls Matthew

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

    More than once Jesus put the work of a tax collector in 1st century Israel on the same level as the work of a prostitute.  And the comparison is quite valid.  For the woman who was a harlot sold her body for money; but the man who was a tax collector sold his soul for money.  Because he did this, you could even say that the tax collector was more degraded than the prostitute.  He was there among the lowest of the low in society.  And yet this is the background of the one we now call Saint Matthew, the Apostle and Evangelist of our Lord, whose day is observed in the church on September 21st.  

    A Jewish tax collector such as Matthew was in a very real sense a turncoat, a traitor.  He had joined the side of the foreigners, the Romans, who were ruling Israel and was a part of their oppression.  It’s as if the old Soviet Union had conquered this country and one of you had decided to work for the enemy in confiscating your fellow citizens’ possessions.  The Romans expected to receive a certain amount of money from Matthew on a regular basis.  The difference between that amount and what Matthew actually assessed his victims was his margin of profit, his income.  Therefore, there was a strong incentive for Matthew to assess high and tax his countrymen for all they were worth, since he was already hated by them for doing this job anyway.

    St. Matthew himself correctly records for us what type of life and work he was pursuing before Christ called him away from it all with the Gospel.  However, Matthew leaves out, unlike Mark and Luke, the fact that his Hebrew name was Levi.  And we can understand why Matthew might choose to neglect this ironic little detail.  Levi was the name of the tribe from which all of Israel’s priests came.  A Levite received no portion or possession of land like the members of the other eleven tribes.  Rather, a Levite was to rely on the Lord as his portion and upon the gifts of his fellow Israelites, who were to honor the Lord by supporting the Levite priests.  Well, our man Matthew-Levi here had decided not to wait upon the Lord but rather to go out and get hold of his own lucrative portion by becoming a tax collector for the Romans.  “Matthew” means “gift of the Lord,” but this Matthew-Levi was no gift to his people as a servant of the Lord.  This Matthew-Levi instead served himself first by becoming a lackey of his people’s Roman conquerors.null

    And so it is somewhat understandable when the Pharisees speak to Jesus’ disciples and ask with righteous indignation, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  However, to this question the Great Healer of sin-sick souls replies that it is not those who are well–or who think they are well–that have need of a physician.  It is rather those who are sick and diseased and who know it.  Think about it.  If you don’t believe you’re sick, you’re not likely to be seeking out a doctor.  It’s generally only when your health fails that you do so.  So it was with these Pharisees.  Though they  had sinful, ill, self-serving hearts like everyone else, they thought that they had no sin-sickness, that they were spiritually healthy.  And so they saw no need for Jesus and were repulsed by the company He was keeping.  But many of the tax collectors and other sinners had come to know very well that things were all wrong with them.  They knew they needed help.  And when the Great Physician came to them, many received His healing medicine.  Moved by His mercy and love, they were turned away from their sin, and they believed in Christ’s words of life, rejoicing in the fellowship of eating with Him in His presence.  Like a skilled and caring doctor ministering to the sick in a third world country, Jesus had come to seek and to save the lost.  And Matthew was one of those whom Jesus sought out and recovered.  

    Jesus continues by telling the Pharisees to go and learn what the Scripture means which says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”  Jesus is referring there to a passage from the Old Testament prophet Hosea; we heard it last week.  Hosea had actually been instructed by the Lord to go and marry a prostitute, a woman named Gomer.  That action was meant to be a living parable of God’s steadfast and faithful love to His people Israel–Israel which continually went whoring after false gods.  God was saying to His people, “I desire to show you My mercy and loving-kindness far more than to receive your half-hearted and inconsistent sacrifices.”  God was far more interested that they should know Him as Savior and live in His mercy than to see them try to work out their salvation on their own.  

    That beautiful Gospel of God’s undeserved grace toward His people was the living message of Hosea to Gomer.  She was entirely unable to free herself from her sin and her harlotry, but out of sheer mercy God gave Hosea to rescue her.  Hosea literally bought her out of that life.  Matthew, too, was entirely unable to free himself from his sin; he was all caught up in his money-grubbing covetousness.  But out of sheer mercy, Jesus came to him, forgave him, and set him free from that old way of living, calling Matthew to follow him on the path of true life.

    And the same thing, then, is true for you, too.  For we also are in bondage and cannot set ourselves free from our lost condition.  As Hosea says, our faithfulness to the Lord is like the dew that burns away early.  It’s there and then it’s gone.  One minute things look good, and the next we’re straying away from God to adulterate ourselves with other pleasures and priorities.  But our Lord Jesus does not turn away from you or forget you.  Rather, He has literally bought you out of your enslavement to sin and death and the devil.  This He has done not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  That is the price your heavenly Groom willingly paid to purchase your freedom and to have you back with Himself.

    Just as Jesus came to Matthew, so also He came to you personally and individually in Baptism.  He called you one on one to be His disciple, washing away your sins by water and the Word and setting you on the path of life in Him.  Just as Matthew arose and followed Jesus, so also through Jesus’ Gospel call your soul has been raised from the death of sin.  Baptized into Christ, you disciples are given to follow Him through death into the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  

    In fact Jesus’ mandate to go and make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching is recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew himself is one of the eleven apostles who was first given this charge.  This also is a sign of God’s great grace, that when the Lord calls certain men to be apostles and pastors, He even puts into his service messed up and prideful sinners like Matthew and Paul and Peter and me.  Matthew was converted by grace from one who takes to one who gives.  Once a thief by trade, now it was his calling to freely dispense the mercy of God to the undeserving.  So is the calling of every pastor today, to go about just like Christ dishing out to repentant sinners the overflowing forgiveness of God in preaching and the Sacraments.

    Indeed, as Matthew once extracted taxes for Rome from the Jews, now we have in Matthew’s Gospel the Gospel written specifically for the Jews, that they might receive their long-promised Messiah.  That’s why Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than any other Gospel.  This man who had sold his soul for money was redeemed by Christ and made into a physician of souls for others.  So it is that the words St. Paul wrote about himself certainly also can be applied to St. Matthew, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.  However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.”

    Let us learn then to view the church not merely as a health club for the spiritually fit but as a hospital.  Far too many think of church as some sort of fitness center for those who want to do certain spiritual works and exercises to get themselves in good spiritual shape.  But the truth is that while the church is a place for us to grow in good works and holiness of living, the way that happens is through the Great Physician’s ministry to us.  The church is much more like a medical center for critical patients whose only hope is the treatment Jesus gives.  The church is only for the infirm.  For Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  If you think your spiritual health is just fine, then Jesus isn’t for you.  But if you know your spiritual situation to be hopeless on your own, if you’re tired of your sin-sickness, Jesus is for you.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

    That’s why Martin Luther wrote to his friend, Phillip Melancthon, telling him not to deny or downplay his sin, but rather to acknowledge and confess it honestly.  Luther said, “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners.  Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”  

    When you see the calling of Matthew by our Lord Jesus, you are given to see the truth of those words and of Christ’s victory.  If God can save someone like Matthew–and not only that, but make him an apostle and writer of the first Gospel–then certainly He can also save people like you.  And indeed He has.  The same mercy shown to Matthew has been shown to us all in Christ the crucified.  And just as Jesus shared a meal with tax collectors and sinners, He now also shares a meal with you, the Holy Supper, His own body and blood given and shed for you for the entire forgiveness of all of your sin.  

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

(In memory of and with thanks to the Rev. Fr. Stephen Wiest for much of the above)

Justified by Jesus

Luke 10:25-37

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

    In today’s Gospel it says that the lawyer was trying to justify himself.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that he was trying to show that he was a good person in God’s sight.  But pay careful attention to how he tried to justify himself.  He asked Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  Now why would a question like that help the lawyer to justify himself as a good person?  Very simply, it was a way of covering up the times when he hadn’t kept the commandment to love his neighbor, when he hadn’t been a good person.  For if he can narrow down who fits into that category of “neighbor,” the commandment to love becomes a bit easier to do, and then the times when he didn’t love certain other people wouldn’t count.  

    To try to justify yourself is to try to rationalize and cover up your sin.  It’s the attempt to be your own defense attorney before God and to try to find loopholes and exceptions to get yourself declared “Not guilty.”  We know the game the lawyer is playing because we do it ourselves all the time.  But it’s not a game you want to play with the Lord.  For there are no loopholes or exceptions with Him.  And in truth, the attempt to justify yourself doesn’t cover up your sin; it only adds to it.  It’s bad enough that we have an outburst of anger and yelling.  But then we make it worse by trying to cover for it or make excuses for it.  “Oh, I was just really tired.  Things have been really hard for me lately.  If you hadn’t been so difficult, I wouldn’t have lost my temper.”  It’s bad enough that we commit sexual sin or are tempted to unfaithfulness.  But then we try to deflect the blame or make it seem OK.  “It’s just natural desires that I’m following.  What’s wrong with me trying to find happiness, anyway?  If my spouse were more sensitive or more affectionate, then this wouldn’t even be an issue.”  It’s bad enough that we have our vices; but then we make it worse by trying to make them sound like virtues.  Instead of calling it love of money and pleasure, it’s “preparing for my family’s future” and “just having a little fun.”  Instead of laziness and neglect in our duties toward our neighbor, it’s “I’m just taking a little break, doing a little self-care, having a little me time.”  And just think of all the ways people try to justify skipping church.

    Trying to cover up sin is usually worse than the sin itself.  For then it’s not just that we’re sinning, but we’re embracing and holding on to our sin, holding it outside of and away from God’s mercy, rejecting God’s Word in unrepentance and unbelief.  Then we’re engaged in the futile attempt to justify ourselves when only God can truly justify us.  We’re afraid to be honest about things because we think we’re going to lose in the process or give our adversary the advantage.  But the only thing we truly have to lose is our guilt.  And the only way our adversary, the devil, truly gains the advantage over us is if we deceive ourselves with excuses and rationalizations.

    The lawyer in today’s Gospel had convinced himself that he had lived a good and holy life in God’s sight, that whatever wrongs he had done were justifiable and were so minor that they didn’t really even count.  And so Jesus tells this story of the Good Samaritan to set him straight.  We must never forget that’s the reason why Jesus speaks this parable.  It’s not merely that the Samaritan is a good example for us to follow–although he certainly is that.  Jesus’ main point is that if you think you’ve kept God’s Law well enough to inherit eternal life because you’ve done more good than bad, you are sorely mistaken.  And if you’re still trying rationalize your behavior before God, you’re only fooling yourself.  Romans 3 puts it about as clearly as possible, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight.”null

    Our Lord Jesus is saying to the lawyer and to all of us today, “Repent.  You are the man laying on the side of the road.  You are the one who has been robbed of the glory in which you were created.  Sin and Satan and the world have beaten you and left you in the ditch, physically alive, but spiritually dead.  The Law cannot save you.  It can diagnose your condition, but it offers you no medicine.  Like the priest and the Levite, it passes by on the other side.  Only I, Jesus, your Good Samaritan can rescue you.  I have come to you as a foreigner from the outside, the Son of God from heaven. Though I  am despised and rejected by the Jewish leaders as if I were a Samaritan, I have come to show you mercy and compassion.

    “As one who shares in your flesh and blood, I am here to take your place.  For I myself will be robbed and stripped of My clothing; I myself will be beaten mercilessly and left dead on a cross, buried in a grave.  But this is the way I will defeat your enemies.  This is the way I will take away their power over you.  I will take the whole curse into my body, your sickness and sin and hurt and death.  And by My divine blood I will break the curse.  Through My resurrection, I will give you new and immortal life.  You cannot win this fight by your own strength.  But I am fighting for you.  When death and the devil grab hold of My weak flesh, they will learn all too soon that they have grabbed hold of the almighty God; and I will tear them limb from limb and utterly destroy them.  I am here with you.  Lean on Me. You are safe; you are forgiven; there is nothing now that can separate you from My love.”

    The Good Samaritan Jesus comes to you and He cleans up the wounds of your sin in the waters of baptism.  He pours on the oil of His Holy Spirit to comfort you and the wine of His blood to cleanse and purify you in the Holy Supper.  He gives you lodging in the Inn which is His holy church.  Here you are continually cared for through the preaching of His words of life.  For although your sins are fully forgiven, yet the wounds of sin are not fully healed.  We still live with their effects in this world, don’t we.  The Church is the hospital where those wounds are tended to by the Great Physician, lest they become infected.  The innkeeper is the pastor; Jesus provides the innkeeper with two denarii, so that the Lord’s overflowing compassion might continue to be given to you in His ongoing ministry of the Gospel.  Jesus promises to pay whatever it takes to restore you.  For in fact He has already paid the full price, fully justifying you by His sacrifice on the cross.

    In particular, those two denarii also point us to the resurrection of Jesus.  A denarius would pay for one day’s room and board.  A two denarii stay would mean that the man would be up and out on the third day.  This is what Jesus has done for you.  He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, and He rose on the third day so that you may share in His bodily resurrection and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  It is as we heard in the OT reading: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.”

    The lawyer had asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”  And the answer to that is “everyone,” any one who crosses your path, especially someone in need.  But notice how Jesus changed the question.  He changed it from the Law to the Gospel.  He said, “Who was neighbor to the man?”  The neighbor in Jesus’ question is not on the receiving end but on the giving end of help.  So who is neighbor to you?  The answer to that question is just one; it’s Jesus.  He is the One who had mercy, who loved you as Himself.  He is the One who kept the Law for you, in your place, so that in Him you may inherit eternal life, as the Epistle said, “The Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

    Repenting and believing in Jesus, He now lives in you and through you to love and be the neighbor to others.  He frees you to “go and do likewise”–not because you have to in order to be saved, but simply because your neighbor needs you.  Since Christ became weak for us and bore all our infirmities and sorrows, we learn to see Him in those who are weak and suffering.  We show love for Him by loving them.  And even if our neighbor is not deserving, even if they are our enemy, we remember the Scripture which says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  That is precisely what the Lord has done for us, who are undeserving, who were once His enemies.

    So remember, you don’t have to keep trying to justify yourself; Jesus has taken care of that for you.  There is joy in abandoning that cover-up.  Psalm 32 prays, “I acknowledged my sin to You, And my iniquity I have not hidden.  I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’  And You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Being honest before the Lord like that, He takes care of the covering up, as it also says in Psalm 32, “Blessed is he who transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”

    You are indeed blessed in Christ by His covering of your sins with His forgiveness.  Only He can truly cover them and take them away.  Only through faith in Christ are you truly justified and put right with God.  Through Him the promised inheritance is yours, a free gift, won by His death, delivered by water and the Word, sealed by His body and blood.  As you rest and recover here in the Inn, be strengthened in the certainty that very soon your Good Samaritan will return to you as He has promised.  The risen Jesus will come again, your compassionate Lord, and you will be with Him in the perfect rest and contentment of the new creation to come.  

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

The True Israel

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Luke 19:41-48

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

    We hear news stories pretty regularly about the middle East and in particular the nation of Israel.  Not only does their long-standing conflict with the Palestinians continue, but Iran proclaims openly that they’d like to wipe Israel entirely off the map–a pleasant thought as I prepare for my Holy Land tour next April.  But it raises the question: is what happens in Israel today something that relates to our Christian faith at all?  Israel and the Israelites are obviously central to the Biblical account of salvation.  But what should our theological attitude be toward what’s going on with Israel in the Middle East today?  

    There are some supposedly Christian preachers and authors who want to make a big deal out of current events.  They see happenings in the Middle East as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  They view the nation of Israel as a key player in the end times.  They believe that before Christ can return, a whole series of geopolitical events must play themselves out, including the rebuilding of the temple.  But all who preach and believe such things are mistaken and in error.  For they are failing to see that all prophecy centers on Christ and is fulfilled in His life and death and resurrection.  All prophecy that is not centered in Christ and fulfilled in Him and His church is false prophecy.  This is especially true when it comes to the prophecies pertaining to Israel.  

    The people of Israel were indeed the chosen people of God.  They are the descendants of Abraham, to whom God gave the promise that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him.  But that promise came to life in the birth of the Israelite Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.  Through Christ the blessing of the forgiveness of sins comes to all the nations.  All that God gave to Israel, from the tabernacle to the sacrifices to the Sabbath all pointed forward to a culmination in Jesus.  Even the prophecies pertaining to the land of Israel, that geographic territory, were all given so that there might be a particular place where the promises of God might come to pass in Christ.  What makes the holy land holy is not that the ground itself is sacred, but rather that God Himself walked that ground in the person of Jesus and there accomplished our salvation by His holy cross.

    And so today in this New Testament age, the true Israel is no longer a reference to a nation or a territory.  It is rather a reference to the church, to those who are the people of God in Christ. Romans 9 says that not all who are Israelites according to the flesh are the true Israel, but rather “the children of the promise are counted as the seed,” as the children of Israel.  In other words, those who are believers in the promised Messiah are the true Jews, the real Israel.  Jesus is the whole people of Israel embodied in one man.  And so when we believe and are baptized into Him, we ourselves become Israelites, God’s chosen people, children of God in Him who is the Son of God.  

    Therefore, when we pray the Psalms and refer to Israel, we are not referring to a nation but to the church, to the faithful of the Lord.  And when we refer to Jerusalem, as we will be doing in today’s closing hymn, we are referring not to a temporal, passing city, but the holy city above, the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal dwelling place of God’s redeemed believers.  

    So to get back to where we started, when it comes to events in Israel and the Middle East today, we have no theological stake in what the political outcome is.  It doesn’t affect our Christian faith one way or the other.  Our country may have a strategic or political stake in the matter, but that’s an entirely different story.  The only thing the turmoil in Israel and the Middle East and throughout the world should remind us of as Christians is that in this world we will find no lasting peace.  That is to be found only in Christ.  Wars and rumors of wars, the persecution and killing of Christians–all of that is meant to alert us to the fact that Christ will come again soon, and that we should be praying daily for His return to bring our salvation to its completion.

    In today’s Gospel, Jesus mourns what will become of Israel and of Jerusalem in particular.  The name Jerusalem literally means “city of peace.”  But when He, the Prince of Peace had come to her, she refused Him.  Like a rejected groom, He weeps for her and her fate.  In the year 70 A.D., just forty years after this Gospel, Jesus’ prophetic words will be fulfilled.  Jerusalem will be attacked and laid siege by the Romans.  Thousands upon thousands will be killed in horrific fashion.  Above all, the temple will be utterly destroyed and laid waste.  All that is left of the temple still today is one portion of an outer wall, the wailing wall, which still calls to mind Jesus’ weeping.

    This was the judgment of God.  The Romans were His instrument in executing the sentence.  For Israel had spurned the Messiah.  They did not know the time of their visitation, when God Himself visited them and walked among them.  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.  

    It’s not as if they weren’t religious.  St. Paul says in the Epistle that they were passionate for God, but they tried to get right with Him on the basis of their own keeping of God’s Law.  They foolishly trusted in their own obedience rather than humbly and penitently relying on the grace of God revealed to them in Christ and receiving His righteousness as a free and undeserved gift.  And so they ended up rejecting the very one their Law prophesied.  All their religious passion was for nothing.  They wanted something flashier and more glorious than this lowly Jesus.  In fact it offended them to think that’s how God would visit them.  They stumbled at this stumbling stone of the Gospel, and so the stones of the temple and the city were demolished around them.  The weeping of God eventually becomes the judgment of God for those who will not repent.

    This is a clear and sobering call to repentance for you still today.  For the Jews had it all, everything they needed to recognize and receive the Messiah when He came.  Don’t we also?  Indeed, we have even more!  Let us not, then, take these things for granted and stumble as they did.  What happened to Jerusalem in the 1st century is a miniature picture of what will happen to all the unbelieving world on judgment day.  Consider, then, how things stand with you.  Are you relying on the fact that you’re a good person to get you into heaven rather than Christ alone?  Then your religion is like the false religion of the Jews, and you must repent.  Do you look for God primarily in mysterious signs or supernatural occurrences instead of in His humble but sure Word?  Is divine service something you can do without for weeks at a time?  Then you are like the Israelites who did not know the time of their visitation, and you must repent.  Are you one who wants to use religion as a way of gaining earthly blessings?  Then you are like those who bought and sold in the temple, and you must repent.

    Turn away from all that, and turn to Him whose heart still weeps out of love for 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!”  Christ Himself is your Peace, who visits you humbly, just as He did with Israel–in water and words, bread and wine.  He is the One who brings reconciliation between you and God, the One who gives the peace that passes all understanding.  This is your day, right now, 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 sounding in your ears.  Believe in Him; trust in what He has done; seek His righteousness.

    For our Lord has 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 body.  Jesus made Himself unclean in your place.  He took all of the greed and the self-righteousness and the callousness and every other sin and made it His own dirty mess.  And by His holy suffering and death He cast it out and away from you forever.  He buried it all permanently in the grave.

    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 everlasting glory and honor, the new and eternal dwelling place of God for you.  Jesus is your temple.  The risen body of Christ is full of holiness and righteousness and cleansing.  Baptized into Him, those things are all yours.  The Church is the body of Christ.  And therefore you are the temple of Christ’s Spirit, who dwells in you through your baptismal faith. You are safe from divine judgment.  For you are in Him who took the judgment for you.

    “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  Brothers and sisters in Christ, O Israel of God, this is your day; this is the time of your visitation.  Don’t miss out because you’re looking for the wrong thing,  or because you’ve got more important things to do.  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.  God grant you to be like that faithful remnant in the Gospel that was very attentive to hear Jesus, that by His grace you may be brought to dwell eternally in the new Jerusalem above.

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

Beware of False Prophets, Love Christian Doctrine

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

    The church at large today sadly often takes its cue from the world.  And the world just wants everyone to be nice and to agree to disagree and accept all beliefs and not be sticklers about insisting on the truth.  And so in the church, pure doctrine is not usually treated as something that’s essential.  As long as we all believe in Jesus, it is said, there’s no need to get too worked up about the other details.  “Doctrine divides, the Gospel unites” is the slogan.  Or, “Deeds, not creeds.”  “Let’s just focus on love and missions and community.”  The problem with that is that it’s the creed that creates the deed.  Holding to the pure Word of God is what produces pure and real love in His sight.  Christian doctrine, Christian teaching, is what drives Christian living and creates the Christian community.  The mission that we have is to confess and proclaim the doctrine of Christ.

    So if someone tries to pit doctrine against love or doctrine against Christ, the response to that is simply this: Doctrine is Christ.  All Biblical teaching ultimately centers on Jesus.  Or to put it another way, Biblical doctrine is the Gospel of Christ unfolded in all its articles. If you love Jesus, you love Christian doctrine.null

    Here’s my favorite way to illustrate this point: It is commonly said that all that really counts is that a person believes the simple Gospel as it is given to us in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  And that is very true; that sums it up well.  But there are a few things that this verse implies that we should make clear and explicit.

    Such as, who is this God who loved the world?  Is it the same god that the Muslims worship or Hindus or other religions worship?  Well, no. The Scriptures make it clear that there is only one true God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the God who is 3 in 1. So in the very first word of John 3:16, we are already into what the Bible teaches about the doctrine of the Trinity.

    This verse also speaks about people perishing.  Well, why is it that people are going to perish? The Scriptural answer is that it is the curse of man’s rebellion against His Creator.  Man is a fallen creature under God’s judgment. All of our supposed righteousness is filth before God.  We need to be called to repentance.  And so John 3:16 also involves an understanding of the doctrine of original sin and the fallen nature of mankind.

    Then this verse talks about the only-begotten Son. What does “only begotten” mean? And who is the Son? Is Jesus only a divine being? Is He also human? The answer according to the Scriptures is that He is fully God and fully man in one sinless person, the only Son of the Father. John 3:16 involves the doctrine of the two natures of Christ.

    Then this verse speaks about having eternal life.  How do we attain that? Is that something that’s based on my works and efforts and achievements? No, the Bible teaches that this is something solely and completely won for all people by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. John 3:16 involves an understanding of the doctrine of redemption.

    Then this verse speaks about believing in Christ. What does that mean? What is faith? Is it my decision or my commitment to Christ? Is it something I add to the work of Christ to complete my salvation? No, according to the Scriptures faith is a gift worked by the Holy Spirit whereby we trust in Christ and receive His free and full salvation. And how is that gift given? God’s Word teaches that it is born in Baptism, sustained through the preached Word of Christ, and nourished in the sacred meal of Christ’s true body and blood. John 3:16 involves the right doctrine of faith and of the Sacraments.

    There’s even more that I could say, but I hope by now you see my point. Doctrine and Jesus, doctrine and the Gospel cannot be separated. You mess with one, you mess with the other. You can’t disagree on doctrine and agree on the Gospel. It all hangs together. Now this is not to say that the Gospel is something so complicated that only a theologian can grasp it. For even a little child can receive it. The Gospel is indeed wonderfully simple and clear. And yet it is not simplistic or shallow or trivial. It is the mystery of God which we are always growing into ever more deeply and richly, the doctrine of the eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Therefore it follows that we will want to be on guard against anything that infringes upon or attacks that Word.  For in the end such things are an attack on Christ and our salvation in Him. That’s why Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel, “Beware of false prophets.” Be on guard, because they’re not going to appear false; they’re going to be appealing and offer a real pull away from the truth. Jesus says here that they come to you in sheep’s clothing. They come looking rather pious and good.  They are preachers and teachers in the church. They have the signs of the office, perhaps even a collar and a robe and a stole and a chasuble. But they don’t teach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; they are wolves, even if they don’t fully realize it. Notice what Paul said in the Acts reading, “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, (twisting the Scriptures) to draw away disciples after themselves.” The devil comes an angel of light, Scripture says, and so do his false prophets.

    I can’t help but make a reference here to the practice of ordaining women to be pastors. Though Jesus treated women with profound respect and had many among those who followed him, yet it was 12 men whom He chose to be the first apostles and pastors. Even though the Roman world of that time commonly had female priestesses among the various pagan religions, and that was culturally accepted, yet the New Testament clearly prohibits women from speaking the Word of God to the assembly and being pastors and bishops of the church.

    And yet today this issue is dealt with not on the basis of God’s eternal Word but on the basis of politics and “rights.”  What the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah certainly applies to women’s ordination, “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran.” They are by definition false prophets. For a pastor is there to stand in the stead of Christ to speak the Groom’s words of forgiveness and life to His beloved bride, the Church. A priestess simply cannot stand in Christ’s place in that way. And in attempting to do so she denies the nature of God and perverts the male/female, groom/bride relationship into a female/female relationship. It’s not a coincidence that in nearly all the church bodies that ordain women, there is also a condoning and a sanctioning of homosexual relationships. Of course, that rejection of God’s Word is also done in the name of love.

    But really, what is the truly loving thing to do, to let people take the broad way of the world that leads to destruction, or to patiently and compassionately and consistently call people back to the narrow, difficult way that leads to life in Christ? Which is the more caring outcome: temporary happiness and unity in this world, or eternal joy and reconciliation with God in the world to come? The narrow way of Christ is the way of real love.

    Jesus says that you will know false prophets by their fruit. The fruit refers not simply to their loving or pious lifestyle, since that can be the deceptive clothing of the wolf. Nor does the fruit refer to how successful they are, either, since this world often crowns false teachers with great success and prosperity. The fruit refers to the doctrine. What spiritual food do they offer? What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon? The pure Bread of Life or something else?  It is written, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

    So if you want to know whether a teacher is true or false, just ask yourself: Does he direct me to the shifting sands of my own decisions and commitments, or does he direct me to the solid rock of Christ’s commitment to me and His sure baptismal promise which I have received? Does he direct me to my own good works as a way of purifying myself or gaining eternal life, or does he direct me to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Does he only speak of things in spiritual terms, or does he emphasize the concrete realities of the faith, that Christ took on our flesh and blood, that He was raised from the dead in the body, that He comes to us now in His true body and blood for our forgiveness in the Sacrament, that we will be raised in the body on the Last Day? Does he minimize the seriousness of sin, or does he preach the Law in all its fullness in order to maximize the glory of Christ, the Savior from sin?

    Here’s another test: St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you except Christ and Him crucified.” If Jesus and His sacrifice are not the center of everything that is proclaimed, if the cross is just sort of an add-on or a tag line without much real relevance to today, then that prophet isn’t true. In the 2nd reading Paul told the pastors at Ephesus “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” That blood of Christ is the thread that runs through all true prophecy and preaching.

    Or finally you could go at it in this way: “Is the teaching of this man in keeping with the faith of the Scriptures confessed in the creeds? Is it consistent with what I’ve learned of sin and of Christ and of faith in the Small Catechism? Does it square with the preaching of the Word of God that I hear in my church?” If not, then beware of it, flee from it.

    Flee to Christ; take refuge in Him. For the truth of God’s Word is simply this: The good tree in the Gospel that bears good fruit is the cross. 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 walked the narrow and difficult way which only He could walk. For only He could bear the sins of the world and make full payment for them. He is Himself the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing; He is a sheep in wolves’ clothing. He is the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in darkness and evil at Calvary in order to put them to death in His body, so that we might be delivered from all evil forever. In His cross and resurrection, He destroyed the lies; He ripped apart the wolves forever. Sin, death, and the devil have been conquered and undone for you. Believing in Christ you are saved and safe forever. You are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. In this very hour you are given to eat from the sacred tree you, to receive the holy fruit of His blood and His body, which cleanses you of your sin and gives you everlasting life. In Him you shall rise bodily on the Last Day to the fullness of life in His kingdom.

    Enter, then, by the narrow gate which is the cross. For though the cross involves death to sin and self, it is also the entrance to light and life. It is the only gate that leads to the resurrection. Jesus is your true Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy. You will know Him by His fruits.

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

The Word of Christ is Everything

Luke 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

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

    In today’s Gospel Jesus does something which goes against all sensibility and logic.  He tells Simon Peter, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.”  This appears to be utterly foolish.  For anyone who is even casually familiar with fishing knows that you don’t catch fish out in the deep but in shallower areas where the fish congregate and feed.  Especially when you’re fishing with nets, you want to go where your nets can actually reach the fish.  What Jesus suggests here seems entirely unreasonable.  It goes against all that experience would teach.  

    Furthermore, Simon informs Jesus that they had just been fishing all night without success.  They put to use all of their skills and techniques and knowledge as fishermen and hadn’t caught a thing.  It just wasn’t a good day to fish.  Besides, what’s the point of going out now during the heat of the day, which is the worst time to fish?  What Jesus said made no sense.null

    However, Simon has at least a fledgling faith in Jesus which trusts what He has to say.  And so even though it seems pointless, Simon Peter says, “Nevertheless, at Your Word I will let down the net.”  Because you say so, because it’s your words, I will do it, even though I’ve got my doubts.  And when Simon and his friends do so, they catch such a great number of fish that their net begins to break.  In the end they fill up two boats full.

    So even though today’s Gospel seems to be all about fishing, the real heart of the account is  the Word of Jesus.  Nothing happens apart from that.  The Word may seem foolish to human reason and logic, but in truth it is powerful and effective to do what is says and deliver what it promises and save those who believe.

    St. Paul writes in the Epistle, “The Word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”  They think of the Gospel and the Scriptures as a story for the naive and the gullible and the shallow-minded.  No one who’s got any real intelligence and education is going to go for that.  They regard it as if it were mere superstition.  The Word of God is constantly being mocked in the world as backward or outdated or even hateful.

    St. Paul says more specifically, “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.”  Some people are like the Jews, who want to see miraculous signs and proofs, who are after divine displays of glory and powerful evidences of God’s presence in their life.  If your religion can make me blessed and successful and healthy and wealthy and happy, then I’ll go for it.  But if there’s suffering and sacrifice and a cross involved, then forget it.  The cross is the big stumbling block for the Jews.  For the Old Testament rightly says that anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.  How, then, could such a one who died such a dishonorable death be God?  Where’s the glory in that?

    And some people, Paul says, are like the Greeks who seek after wisdom.  They want everything to be rationally and scientifically explainable.  They won’t believe it unless they can understand it with their senses and their mind.  If it’s not reasonable to their way of thinking, if for instance it speaks of the utter helplessness of man before God, then it’s only worthy of being ridiculed or ignored.  If my goodness and merits and efforts don’t contribute toward my being saved, if I’m entirely dependent on someone else to gain eternal life–that makes no sense.  I’ll find some other spirituality that’s more logical to me.

    We know well the temptation of wanting to follow such worldly spiritualities, to walk by sight and not by faith, to have a religion that’s based on human wisdom and glory rather than God’s wisdom and the cross.  But just like Peter, by God’s grace we have been brought to trust in Jesus’ Word, even in the midst of all our weakness and doubts.  We have been brought to know that though the Word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  It is written, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.”

    In order to humble the proud and those who are wise and strong in their own eyes, our Lord chooses to hide His power behind that which seems foolish and weak.  In that way His saving wisdom and strength will be perceived only by lowly, penitent believers to whom He reveals Himself.  After all where has human wisdom really gotten us?  Technology and science can do wonderful things, no doubt about it.  But has man’s wisdom eliminated crime and violence?  Is there any less loneliness or sadness or depression in the world?  Have people stopped dying?  Man’s wisdom is quite limited; we dare not rest our hopes there.

    Rather, Paul says this, “Since the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”  Think of what an odd way that is for God to operate!  First of all, He chooses to bring His salvation through mere words.  Nothing flashy or glorious, just talking, speaking.  And the focus of the speaking is an instrument of the death penalty, of all things.  The Gospel message is that a suffering, tortured man is the Savior.  We preach Christ crucified, Paul says.  That’s why we display a body on the cross here.  Our hope for eternal life is in His death.  What could be more weak and foolish and even offensive than that?  And yet, Paul says, the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.  That weak, foolish cross still far surpasses all our intelligence.  For it alone conquers sin and death and the devil.  The greatest blessing of God is hidden behind that curse.  He does what runs counter to our thinking to accomplish His purposes, so that no one may boast in His presence, but that we may boast in the Lord alone and glory in His mercy.

    It’s just like when the Lord came to Elijah.  We expect God to be in the miraculous and the mighty.  But the Lord was not in the strong wind for Elijah, nor was He in the earthquake or the fire.  Instead the Lord came to him in a still, small voice.  In that unimpressive fashion, the Lord was there in mercy to speak with Elijah.  So it is still today.  The Lord does not come to us in impressive signs or with high sounding wisdom, but in the simple Word of Christ crucified for sinners.  The still, small voice of the absolution, the preaching of the Gospel is where the Lord is in power for you.  Through that spoken Word He is present to save you and perform what He has promised.  

    Which then brings us to the preachers of this foolish message, where the same theme applies.  If you come to a South Wisconsin District pastors conference and look around, we’re not a very impressive bunch of guys.  Nothing too glorious there to see.  You may even wonder, “What was the Lord thinking in ordaining these people?”  And yet, what the Epistle said applies not only to Christians in general but preachers too: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.”

    That’s the way it was with Simon Peter.  When he saw the miraculous catch of fish given by Christ, he also saw more clearly his own sinfulness by comparison, and he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  Simon was one who was often weak, often foolish.  And yet the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Just as Simon was able to catch these fish solely by the power of Christ’s Word, so now Jesus was making Simon into one who would draw in people solely by preaching Christ’s powerful Word.  In this way others who are weak and foolish would be made wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus.

    That’s the whole point of this catch of fish.  It all happens at the Word of Christ.  Beforehand, Jesus Himself had been “casting the net” so to speak as He preached the Word to the people from Simon’s boat.  Jesus turned that boat into a mighty cathedral.  He Himself is not afraid to launch out into the deep and let down His nets for a catch.  Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the deep in the beginning at creation, so our Lord goes to the deep; to the very depths of sin and death our Lord goes.  That’s what Jesus’ death and burial were about.  He descended to the murky darkness of the abyss in order to pull up His catch of sinful men and to raise you to the light of His resurrection life.

    And now Jesus bids His Simons to continue to cast the net of the Gospel to draw people into the boat which is the church, where He is present to save.  That is the simple and “unreasonable” way in which our Lord accomplishes His mission.  It’s not done through special marketing programs.  Jesus doesn’t use a bait and lure to try to fool people into being Christian.  It’s only the net of His Word which “catches” you and draws you in.  It’s the simple means of baptizing and teaching that makes disciples; it’s the preaching of the Word of Christ crucified that has the power to save.  When that takes place, any church becomes a sturdy ship, a mighty ark of Christ.

    So let us hear clearly for ourselves the words of Christ spoken to Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid.  You are forgiven.  I have taken on your very flesh and blood to make you holy.  Your sins have been paid for by my cross, so that now you can stand before a holy God and live.  Do not fear.  You are Mine.  You are reconciled to the Father through Me.”  And then let us say, “At your Word, Lord, even though I am weak and sinful, nevertheless I believe that I am righteous in your sight; I trust in Your promise.  At Your Word, even though all my senses can grasp here is bread and wine, yet because you have said so I believe that in them you give me Your true body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins, so that I may be filled with your life.  At Your Word, Lord, I let down all my defenses, I forsake all my ways of thinking and doing things to follow you.  I trust in Your mercy and lovingkindness.  You are my light and my salvation.”

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

To Save Sinners

Luke 15:1-10
Trinity 3

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

    There is a show that was on Discovery Channel called “Dirty Jobs.”  Perhaps you’ve seen it.  The guy who hosts the show joins people doing all sorts of stinky, nasty, gross jobs such as cleaning out the inside of septic tanks or pig farming or sifting through garbage. No matter what the job, the guy always tries it out. No matter how dirty or smelly or disgusting, there he is with his camera crew experiencing some “dirty job.”

    In today’s OT reading, the prophet Micah asks “Who is a God like our God, who pardons iniquities and . . . tramples them underfoot?”  Most gods you hear about won’t have anything to do with the nitty gritty details of this earth and its people.  Most religions are all about trying to figure out how to escape the septic tank and get back to a clean and holy God.  But not so with our God!  Not the true God!  The Lord is not afraid to come down here Himself, in the flesh, into the filth of our sins and transgressions and iniquities.  Jesus doesn’t shy away from the grime of our sins but comes right into the midst of it.  Far worse than cleaning a septic tank, the “dirty job” that Jesus does is to enter a world covered in the stench and slime of sin to save the very sinners who made this disgusting mess!  Jesus, true God and true man, comes into this world uninvited, unasked for, to glop around and be covered in the foulness of our sin and then to wash it all away by the blood of the cross.  Jesus comes to save this sinful, decomposing world by taking all the mess onto Himself and dying on the cross. There is no other God or human being who does that.  Buddha didn’t do it.  Mohammed didn’t do it.  Moses doesn’t do it. Only the true Son of God comes in the flesh to this dirty world to save us from our sins.null

    Just as the shepherd goes mucking around through the undergrowth looking for that lost sheep, so Jesus comes to save sinners.  But you’ll notice, He’s not here to save those who aren’t sinners.  He’s only looking for sinners.  After all, those who aren’t sinners don’t need a Savior, do they?  Jesus comes for the lost sheep, and heaven rejoices over that one repentant sinner more than the 99 who need no repentance.

    But you might be saying, “Wait a second! Aren't all people sinners?  Doesn’t everyone need repentance?” Well, the Bible certainly says so.  But most people actually don’t think so. Sure, most everyone will admit that they’re not perfect and could probably do a little better.  But notice how usually sin gets reduced to “bad choices” or “just the way I’m wired” or “a bad habit that I’m working on.”  Few think that they deserve temporal and eternal punishment, as our confession says.  However, those who are sinners know that it’s true–that they don't love and trust in God as they should, or love their neighbor as themselves, that they tend to put themselves first and sometimes even despise others. Those who are sinners know that they have nothing going for them except God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  

    On the other hand, those who “have no need of repentance” are those who don’t think they’re really such bad people when it comes right down to it. They’re confident they’ve got God figured out and are pretty good at doing what He says. Those who have no need of repentance are those who virtue signal and do good to impress others and are quick to condemn those who aren’t quite as good as they are. They say, “Well sure, I’ve made a few mistakes, but I try my best to live a good life.” Those who have no need of repentance are those who don't really believe that their sins are bad enough that the Son of God has to die for them. They trust in themselves and don’t seek or desire Jesus’ help.  And so they’ll be on their own on the Last Day.

    Those who are sinners and know it crowd around Jesus to hear Him and His Word.  But those who supposedly have no need of repentance complain that Jesus receives and eats with such people. On another occasion, the Pharisees were grumbling about this same thing. And Jesus said: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus doesn’t tell those sick with sin to keep their distance, lest He become infected.  The Great Physician came precisely to overcome that distance, to call them to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins, which He would bear in His own body.  He Himself is the Cure.

    And please also be sure to note this:  Jesus did not come to condone sin or approve of sin.  He didn’t come just to pat us on our heads and say that we’re fine just the way we are.  Rather, He came to rescue us from what we are as fallen human beings.  He came to get into the slimy pit that we’ve fallen into in order to lift us up and out to a new life.  This is the problem with so much of what passes for tolerance and love today: people think they’re being loving by saying sinful behavior isn’t sinful.  But that’s really the opposite of love.  For if they deny the sin, they are also denying the need for the forgiveness of sins, right?  And to deny the forgiveness of sins is to deny Jesus who purchased that forgiveness with His blood.  The truly loving thing to do is to acknowledge the sin-cancer and the uncleanness for what it is so that the Great Physician can do His healing, cleansing work.  Jesus doesn’t come to us saying, “It’s OK; no big deal.”  Instead He says, “I still love you; I forgive you; I take your sin away.”

    Jesus calls us all to repentance.  Repentance means doing a one-eighty, away from the way of death to the way of life in Christ.  It means that the Spirit, by the preaching of the Word, turns you away from your sins to faith and trust in Christ. Repentance is something that the Lord works in you by His Word.  You can’t repent on your own. You can’t just decide to turn away from your sins. Rather, Christ Himself calls you out from your sins by His Word.  Sheep wander away.  Coins roll under the dresser and lay there.  In both cases it takes the shepherd or the woman to find that sheep or coin.  In the same way, it is the Lord who must come to us in our sins and die for them on the cross.  It is the Lord who must come to us through the water and Word of the font.  It is Christ who seeks us out and calls us back to Himself by the preaching of the Gospel and the speaking of holy absolution.  It is Christ who draws us to His table to eat and drink His body and blood.  These things are His gifts for sinners. Those who supposedly have no need of repentance have no need for any of these things.  They may as well stay away.  But you, if you have nothing going for you but Jesus, do like those tax collectors and sinners: come to hear Jesus.  Live in your baptism, daily drowning the old Adam with all sins and evil desires, and rise as a new man to the new life which you have in Christ.  To live in your baptism is simply to believe the truth that Micah preached: The Lord has trampled all your iniquities underfoot.  He casts all your sins into the depths of the sea.

    So this Gospel reading is not just for those who have wandered away from church, the straying sheep of our families and our friends and our members that aren’t here.  It applies to us all.  The danger is the same, namely that we stop thinking of ourselves as sinners desperately needing a Savior.  *That is the real reason why people stop coming to church.*  They think they’ve got their spiritual lives handled without Jesus’ preaching and the Sacrament.  They think they’re beyond needing to be ministered to with Christ’s Word.  They think their efforts at good living are better than all the churchgoing hypocrites anyway.  And that is precisely the temptation we all are faced with–to think that our good living is the key rather than Jesus’ good living and dying and rising again for us.  We never stop needing the holy medicine He freely gives in this hospital called the Church.

    So listen carefully. If you think you have need of repentance, then repent of that!  Turn away from such foolishness!  Despair of your self-satisfied pride!  But, if you are a sinner, then rejoice! If you are one who has nothing to persuade God of how great you are; if you are pretty sure that your life is the septic tank God should plug His nose at and avoid, then rejoice!  For Christ Jesus came into the world to save such sinners as you and me.  It is for such sinners that Jesus slogged through the filth and the muck and was nailed to the cross. It is for you that Jesus has given His life and rescued you by His words and sacraments.

    This is the dirty job that Jesus does.  He takes upon Himself the mess of our sin, so that we may take up and wear the garment of His righteousness.  No other "god" would do that. But the true God does.  It is no wonder when the tax collectors and sinners heard of this that they ran to Jesus and congregated around Him. He spoke pardon for their sins.  He spoke peace to their hearts.  And so it is also with you.  Jesus has sought you out and found you and pardoned you.  Jesus has scoured the earth for you by the Word of His Gospel, and He possesses you in faith.  Jesus even dines with you today.  Come to His table and feed on His holy body and blood in faith, knowing that there is joy in heaven over you.  Draw near to Jesus knowing that He receives you with His grace and mercy.  You are the lost sheep and Jesus Christ has found you.  You are the lost coin and Jesus has recovered you.  And so today, too, there is joy in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Mark Beutow)