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The Brothers of Jesus

Matthew 25:31-46
Trinity 26, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year

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

    When Lutherans hear today’s Gospel, sometimes they get a little uncomfortable or confused.  For on the surface it seems as if Jesus is saying that the sheep receive eternal life because they did the good works of feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and so forth, and the goats go into eternal fire because they didn’t do those good works.  How does that square with the Scriptural teaching that we’re saved by faith apart from the works of the Law?

    Usually the way we deal with this is by pointing out how these good works are the fruits and evidence of faith.  We’re saved by faith in Christ alone, but faith is never alone.  It is always busy and active in good works.  And that is certainly correct and true.  Scripture says, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:16).  Even though unbelievers also do good works (from a human perspective), apart from faith in Jesus, they are still unrighteous deeds in God’s sight.  For even the good that we do is stained with impure motives and self-seeking desires.  For instance, if I do a good work just to fulfill an obligation or to calm my guilty conscience or to gain some sort of benefit for myself, is that really even a good work?  Only the blood of Jesus can cleanse our works and make them actually to be good.  In that sense then, God even forgives our good works and makes them to be righteous and acceptable deeds in Christ.  

    But we should recognize that today’s Gospel is talking more specifically than just about doing good works for our neighbor.  To be sure, whatever good we do for another person, we are truly doing it for Christ.  For He shares in the humanity of all people; He has joined Himself to our very nature.  And so by faith we see the face of Christ in others, especially those who are in need or suffering.  For Jesus Himself was in need and suffered for us.

    However, you’ll notice that today’s Gospel is not talking simply about doing good generally to everyone but particularly to Jesus’ brethren.  So who are the brethren?  In Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus, the angel at the tomb said to the women, “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”  “My brethren” there refers to the 11 apostles, the 12 minus Judas.  At Galilee, Jesus gave the command to these 11 brothers of His, “Go and make disciples of all the nations . . .”  They were to do this by baptizing and by teaching all His words.  In today’s Gospel reading “all the nations” are now gathered before Christ.  The “brethren,” then, are clearly the apostles whom Jesus sent and also all those after them who are in the apostolic office of the ministry.  The brethren are those whom Christ has given to baptize and preach the Gospel in His name to all the nations until the close of the age.  The brethren is a reference to pastors, those who are ordained to stand in the stead of Christ, undershepherds of the Good Shepherd who care for His flock.

    Most pastors have had the experience of a young child coming up to us, thinking we were Jesus.  Well, no, a pastor is not Jesus; but in a profound way, actually yes.  Jesus said in Matthew 10 to the disciples whom He sent out to preach, “He who receives you receives Me.”  Jesus had bound Himself to them so that their words were His words.  To welcome them was to welcome Christ Himself.  In fact, Jesus said, “Whoever gives one of these little ones [the least of these My brethren] only a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, I tell you the truth, he certainly will never lose his reward.”  That act of giving a cup of cold water doesn’t merit anything of itself.  Rather, it is a sign of faith, that the hearer believed the Gospel of Jesus which His brothers had preached.  That’s why I will almost always accept a drink of water offered to me on my visits, even if I’m not thirsty at that moment.

    Jesus’ still says to His preachers and His missionaries, “He who receives you receives Me.”  For such men are called by Christ to be His representatives and ambassadors.  You know that when a pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins . . .” he is not speaking for himself but in the stead and by the command of Christ.  When he says, “This is My body,” that is not his voice but Christ’s.  The same thing is true of holy baptism.  Martin Luther said, “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God Himself.  Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”  The fellow whom Jesus uses to do that is really secondary; he’s covered up in robes to show that he represents not himself but the Lord.  To receive a brother of Jesus, then, a preacher of Christ, is to receive Christ Himself–not because of the merits of the minister certainly, but because Christ is truly present in the ministry of His words and sacraments for your salvation.

    Of course, the flip side of the coin is also true.  Jesus says to His preachers in Luke 10, “He who rejects you rejects Me.”  You can’t believe in Jesus but reject or ignore those whom He has sent to preach and teach His words.  A lot of your family and friends think that they’re Christians but don’t want to submit themselves to the shepherding of a pastor.  And it’s usually not just that they don’t like one particular pastor because of his personality or something, since they don’t end up going to any faithful shepherd to receive the words and the gifts of Christ.  In fact, they chafe at pastors who try to guide or correct them with Scriptural truth, who encourage them to come back to divine service regularly, and they accuse them of being overbearing or unfriendly or whatever.  This is a rejection of Jesus.  In the end, those who try to be their own shepherd turn out to be the goats.

    So with this understanding of who the brethren are, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel make a lot more sense regarding faith and good works and why the sheep are saved and the goats are not.  Imagine again the scene:  Jesus is seated on the throne of His glory for the final judgment.  All the nations are gathered before Him, all the nations to whom He sent His apostles and preachers to make disciples.  Jesus says, “I have sent to you My brethren, the preachers of the Gospel.  I have given them to speak My words of repentance and to shower you with My mercy and forgiveness and righteousness.  You on My right have received them and their message.  You have believed the Gospel, which was made known by your care for those who proclaimed it to you.  You provided food and drink, a place to live and clothes to wear.  You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you did for My brethren who acted in My stead, even the least and most ordinary and lowly of these men, you did for Me.  But you on My left did not receive My preachers or their message.  You trusted in your own wisdom and works.  You did not believe the Gospel, which was made known by your failure to show any real regard for those who proclaimed it.  You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you didn’t do for My brethren who were acting faithfully on My behalf, you didn’t do for Me.”

    There are some important reminders for pastors in this.  When Jesus refers to the brethren here, He always refers to the least, which is how every pastor should see himself.  It’s not about him or how impressive he is; it’s always only about Jesus and faithfulness to Him.  And with Jesus, it’s about the cross.  Pastors should be ready to suffer if necessary.  “I was in prison and you visited me.”  That’s about sticking with your shepherd and faithful leaders of the broader church when they have to pay the price for faithfulness with civil punishments.  Our Lord was arrested, and then in the book of Acts, so also were Peter and Paul.  The disciples at first ran away when Jesus was arrested.  But of course we know that they were brought back, and all of them were arrested and martyred themselves for the sake of the Gospel, except for the Apostle John who was exiled to Patmos.  The apostle Paul was greatly comforted and encouraged by those who visited him and who prayed for him in prison.  Finally, Paul also lost his life for the sake of the Gospel, being beheaded in Rome.  

    So it’s all about faith in the Gospel of Jesus, a Gospel that is proclaimed by flesh and blood men, men who are either received or rejected.  The final judgment is being played out right now in the world.  Pray that the Lord would continue to send out His brethren into the ministry.  Pray that many might be given hearts to support these missionaries and ministers of the Word and that we would receive them as we would Christ Himself.  

    For our Lord Jesus  made Himself to be the least of the brethren so that you would receive the greatest of His mercies.  He was weak and hungry in the wilderness.  On the cross He said, “I thirst.”  He Himself took your infirmities and bore your sicknesses in His own body on the tree.  He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people.  He put Himself into the bondage of your hellish prison so that He might burst the bars of your captivity from the inside out by His mighty resurrection.  Through Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are released from your sins; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him.  It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you, that you might live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  For Christ is indeed risen from the dead; He lives and reigns to all eternity as your King and your Savior.

    On the Last Day Jesus will certainly say these very words to you who believe, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  The Father has truly blessed you by giving you the new birth of water and the Spirit into His heavenly family.  All that He has is yours.  Christ has given you to share in His everlasting inheritance.  And like any inheritance, it’s not yours because you’ve worked for it, but simply because you’ve been adopted into the family.  In fact, this inheritance was being prepared for you from the beginning of creation, before you were even around.  It’s all a gift, given to you through the merits of Christ.  Believe that Gospel.  Trust in that promise.  For just as Jesus will come on the Last Day with all His holy angels, so also He is here even now with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to bring you His kingdom in the Sacrament of His body and blood.  Come, you blessed of the Father, receive the kingdom; receive the King.

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

See, I Have Told You Beforehand

Matthew 24:1-28
Trinity 25, 3rd Last Sunday in the Church Year

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

    The temple area in Jerusalem was a rather impressive display of architecture and engineering.  In the years before Jesus’ birth, King Herod had engaged in a multi-decade project to turn the entire temple mount into a place rivaling the glories of Rome, with dozens of huge colonnades and porticos and archways and structures surrounding the temple.  And the temple itself was a sight to behold–renovated and upgraded by Herod.  Because it was a building of white marble and gold, with bronze entrance doors, it was said that you couldn’t look directly at the Temple in full sunlight or it would practically blind you. The disciples were impressed by all this glory, and they point it out to Jesus.

    However, Jesus bursts their bubble.  The glories of this present world, even of the temple itself, were passing away.  Jesus, who is the eternal temple, the dwelling place of God in the flesh, tells them that those huge, expertly-crafted, marvelously-placed stones would all be destroyed and thrown down, not one stone left upon another.  This must have been a shocking thing for the disciples to hear, and it gets them to thinking about big apocalyptic things, like the end of the age.

    That’s what Jesus wants us to do, too, especially as we begin to wind down to the end of the church year.  Now is the time for us to ponder ultimate and eternal things and not just what is impressive in this world.  We, too, can rightly marvel at amazing feats of architecture, like the ancient pyramids, medieval and renaissance church buildings, modern stadiums and skyscrapers.  We, too, can be amazed at technological wonders like GPS and artificial intelligence.  But lest we get too full of ourselves and what humans can achieve, Jesus bursts our bubble and gives us a dose of reality.  It’s all going to be thrown down and destroyed–including this building, including the things you’ve built up in your life–all of it.  Don’t get too caught up in temporary wonders and accomplishments, or you’ll go down with them.

    Jesus gives several signs which are intended to keep us focused on the main thing, the big picture of life with Him.  The events that led up to the cataclysmic destruction of the temple are a microcosm of what will happen to the whole world in the last days.  And so Jesus talks about both of these things together.

    First, Jesus says that in the last days, you should watch out for false Messiahs and false prophets so that you are not deceived by them.  Whether it’s Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon “latter-day saints” or Muslims or Hindus or generic spiritual gurus, they all present a false Christ–not the historical person who is truly God in the flesh, who died on the cross as the sacrifice to atone for all sin, not the one who is the only Lord and Redeemer, but some person of their own invention.  Even within the church there are many who lead away from the Christ-centered truth of Scripture to the deceitful wisdom of man.  So be on guard; pay attention to doctrine.  Be sure that you are taking in the Bread of Life and not the carcinogens of false teaching.

    Next, Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, of famines and pestilence and earthquakes.  Sounds a bit like our nightly newscasts, doesn’t it?  Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Hamas, other conflicts brewing from the far East to right here at home.  And nature itself is often in upheaval.  Yet all these things, Jesus says, are just the beginning of the birth pains.  

    Now when labor pains come, what do the parents do?  They get everything ready for the delivery.  They head to the hospital.  They focus on the new life about to come into the world.  So what do we do when we see these signs?  When everything looks like it’s coming apart wherever we turn, too often we get anxious and fearful and cynical.  But Jesus gives us the signs of the end not so that we’ll focus worriedly on those troubling events but on Him whom the signs are pointing us to.  Just like birth pains, these signs are meant as a wake-up call.  Get ready!  New life is about to come.  We don’t know exactly when–labor is sometimes short, sometimes long.  But one thing we know for sure: Jesus is returning soon.  And that’s a good thing!  So you’re in the right place, this hospital, this divine service.  Do the spiritual lamaze of breathing in and breathing out His holy words.  Receive the medicine of immortality in the Sacrament of the Altar to strengthen your hearts.  Don’t dwell on how everything is crumbling down.  Rather, keep your eyes fixed on Him who is building up and bringing in the new creation for you, even in this moment.

    It’s important to do this, because Jesus says that Christians will be hated and killed for the sake of His name.  How’s that for an evangelism message?  “Come and die with us.”  Those who love the lies and the false promises of this world hate those who hold firmly to Christ and His words of truth.  So don’t be surprised at how violently irrational this could get.  Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me first.”  You are given to be like your Lord and to walk the way of His cross.

    Be prepared for this, so that you don’t stumble and fall away from the faith.  Jesus says here, “Many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.”  Former Christians will turn on their former brothers and sisters.  And on a larger scale our Lord says, “Because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.”  Sometimes lawlessness is accomplished (ironically) by using legal levers of power.  What greater example could there be of love growing cold than the majority voting to legalize the killing of innocent unborn children?  And yet this was a major theme of our nation’s elections this past Tuesday, even in supposedly conservative-leaning states like Ohio.  Why are people so motivated to maintain this “right” to slaughter helpless human beings?  Because of the sexual lawlessness that abounds in our porn-saturated culture.  When it comes right down to it, sexual freedom is more highly prized in this country than the human life it inevitably conceives.  Lawlessness and cold-heartedness go hand in hand.

    However, not all of Jesus’ signs are bad news.  The last sign He speaks of is very good news, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.”  Missionary work is a sign of the last days!  Even in the midst of the chaos and disorder of this fallen world, the new world is already breaking in through the preaching of the Gospel.  The kingdom of God is coming right now by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  His kingdom is in our midst wherever two or three are gathered in His name, assembled around His words and body and blood, receiving His forgiveness and life and salvation by faith.  The fact that you have gathered like this today is a witness to the nations of the presence of God’s kingdom and the sure hope you have in His mercy.  In this world of upheaval and constant change, you know that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  You can count on Him who is your Rock and your Fortress.  Jesus gives you this promise, “He who endures to the end shall be saved.”

    That’s what you are called to do: endure.  Continue to hold on to Christ and His promises.  For they will come to pass.  Wait with patience for His return.  For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  When you see all these signs that He speaks of, know that Jesus is close at hand.  The very gates of heaven are about to be opened in the sight of all.  His glory will soon be revealed to us and in us.  The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church of the living God.  You can endure with confidence because our victory is assured in the crucified One.

    And that brings us finally to this mention of the “abomination of desolation” in the Gospel.  Israel, of course, was under Roman rule in Jesus’ day.  And the Romans demonstrated their dominion by placing their image upon the lands they ruled, the image of the eagle.  The eagle insignia was even attached to the front of the temple.  For the Jew, these graven images were an abomination and idolatry.  Eventually a large Jewish rebellion arose against Rome in 66 A.D., one which would be crushed in the following years.  Jesus said in Luke 21, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.”  The sign of the eagle arrived in force with these Roman armies.  They entered into the temple, burned it, and tore it down in 70 AD–the abomination that brings desolation.  Wherever the carcass is–the dead bodies of war–there the Roman eagles were gathered together.

    And yet we can see that there is a greater meaning to these words of Jesus.  For just as the destruction of Jerusalem foreshadows Jesus’ return in glory, it also points back to Jesus’ death in dishonor.  “Wherever the carcass is, there the eagles will be gathered together.”  Didn’t Jesus die at the hands of the Romans–Pontius Pilate who condemned Him, the soldiers who flogged Him, the centurion who stood guard at Golgotha with his troops?  The sign of the eagle was certainly there as the dead carcass of Jesus was taken down from the cross.  The real abomination of desolation was that God incarnate was crucified under the authority of Caesar. And the holy of holies, Christ’s body, was violated as a Roman spear pierced Him and the sacrificial blood of the Lamb of God was poured out.  And yet precisely because Jesus endured this great tribulation, because He underwent this greatest of suffering at the hands of the powerful for you, the tribulation that you must endure will not be your undoing.  Your powerful enemies, Satan and sin and the grave, have all been conquered by the greater insignia, the sign of the cross.  Marked with that sign in baptism, you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.  “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:28).  For the sake of the elect, the days of tribulation have been shortened–for your sake.  They are temporary.  Then have an end in Christ.  “See, I have told you beforehand,” Jesus says.  He has prepared you for this.  He will see you through it.

    So it’s no longer about carcasses and eagles for us.  Now we rejoice to say, “Wherever the risen body of Jesus is, there the sheep will be gathered together.”  We assemble at His table where our hearts are warmed and stirred up to love by His forgiving presence.  His coming is hidden now, but not on the Last Day.  “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.”  Remember how the angel at Jesus’ tomb had a countenance like lightning.  When he descended from heaven there was a great earthquake as he rolled away the stone.  Imagine, then, what an earth-shaking, radiant event it will be when the Lord returns with the whole angelic host, when your grave is opened, and you share bodily in Jesus’ resurrection.  So it is that we pray with the whole church, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

What it Means to Be Blessed

Matthew 5:1-12
All Saints Day

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

    Usually when someone says that they’re “blessed,” it means that things are going pretty well for them.  Their health is great, their financial situation is solid, they’ve got a close family or faithful friends.  They’re blessed.  Life is good for them.  No one who just got a cancer diagnosis or lost their job talks about how blessed they are.  However, in today’s Gospel Jesus lays down a different kind of blessedness that the world cannot understand, for it is to be found only in the crucified One, who is the embodiment of all these words.

    The world says, “Blessed are those whose spiritual principles have brought them success and self-satisfaction in life.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  To be poor in spirit is to have a contrite and repentant heart.  It is to know that you’re a poor sinner, with no spiritual power of your own.  It is to stand before God not in pride but in humility, with nothing to give and everything to receive from His gracious hand.  Those who are poor in spirit have no source of security within themselves, but in Jesus alone.  They believe the words of today’s Psalm, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

    Jesus made Himself poor for our sakes.  He was lowly and crushed in spirit.  Though without sin, He shared fully in our weaknesses and suffering in order to redeem us.  He cares for the poor and the lowly and the distressed and the hurting.  Through His poverty we have become rich, heirs of the kingdom of heaven, lavished with His extravagant forgiveness and mercy and life. The poor in spirit trust that through their baptism into Christ, they will share forever with Him in His resurrection and the treasures of heaven.  They pin all their hopes on Him, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who are carefree, who are always enjoying themselves.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  By mourning, Jesus doesn’t only mean sorrowing over those who have died.  He also means sorrowing over the fallen state of this world and the judgment that will soon come upon it.  Those who mourn refuse to be in tune with the world, refuse to accommodate to its standards, refuse to just go with the flow.  The followers of Jesus see beyond the facade and the lies of the culture.  They know that the time is growing short and the coming of Christ is close at hand.  Jesus’ disciples mourn for a world that is deceived and dying.  While others try to ignore reality and achieve their “best life now,” Christ’s disciples wait in hope of a new and better life.  Their comfort comes from Him who mourned over Jerusalem, who longs for His wayward people to return to Him, whose heart is overflowing with compassion for us in our affliction and sorrow.  Those who follow the Crucified and Risen One find their comfort in His words, which give them strength to endure, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are the strong, the mighty, the powerful, the intimidating, for they rise to the top.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  Meekness here doesn’t mean weakness.  Meekness has to do with the strength of self-control, not having to lash out every time you’re disrespected, not always having to assert your rights and get your way.  When the disciples of Jesus are struck on one cheek, they offer the other.  When robbed of their cloak, they surrender their tunic.  When cursed, they bless.  They love their enemies, and they do good to those who hate them.  They pray for those who slander and defame them.  They do not make a scene when they suffer injustice.  They do not seek revenge, but leave vengeance to God.

    For this is how it was with Jesus.  He was struck and beaten without retaliating.  He gave up His clothing to the soldiers who took it from Him.  He prayed for those who nailed Him to the cross, saying, “Father, forgive them.”  The power of God is hidden in the meekness of Christ’s death.

    Baptized into that meekness, Jesus’ disciples trust in the promise that they shall inherit the earth. What the strong and the violent now possess by force will be given as an inheritance to those who belong to Jesus.  In the new creation the power of the cross will be revealed in the resurrection of the faithful.  The last will be first, the humble will be exalted, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are you when you are overflowing with self-esteem, when you have achieved self-fulfillment, when you are content with your spiritual condition.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”

    The disciples of Jesus renounce their own righteousness.  For everything they do still bears the stain of sin.  They yearn for a righteousness that cannot be produced from within.  They hunger for living Bread and thirst for living water.  The disciples recognize that they now live in a wilderness.  

    Nothing this world offers can satisfy; only Jesus can.  Jesus’ disciples  trust in Him who died in thirst.  They live entirely on His promise that “they shall be filled” with a righteousness not their own–fed by the Bread of Life, given to drink of His cup of salvation.  Jesus gives His disciples His own body to eat and His own blood to drink.  He fills them with His righteousness, His perfect life and death and resurrection, the only righteousness that satisfies eternally, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who hold on to their own pride and honor, who look out for number one.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  The disciples have forsaken their own honor so that they might have true honor and dignity in Jesus.  Living by faith, they humble themselves to show mercy and kindness even to those who don’t deserve it.

    Jesus set aside His dignity to eat with tax collectors and sinners.  He reached out to touch the demonized, the diseased, the desperate.  He died in dishonor on a cross to show mercy to all.  The disciples of Jesus are eager to let His mercy flow through them also to others.  Those who follow Christ trust that on the Last Day, they will be shown everlasting mercy, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are the movers and the shakers, the crafty and smooth talkers, those who can manipulate things and make things go their own way, for they will be like gods and goddesses.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

    Pure in heart means innocent, as Adam and Eve once were before the Fall.  Pure hearts are not run by ulterior motives, but entirely by the Spirit of Jesus. It isn’t simply right actions, but right desires that matter. It isn’t only what we do, but why we do it that counts.  Who then can say that he or she is pure in heart?  No one but Jesus.  And He creates clean hearts in us, hearts purified by His Word, cleansed by His blood, softened by His promise, so that He alone may reign in them.  In Jesus we see God by faith.  And it is written, “We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”  And so we are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who mind their own business, who don’t care about other people’s issues and conflicts.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

    The disciples of Jesus are reconciled to the Father through the wounds of the Prince of Peace.  Baptized into Him, they seek to work reconciliation with others and to live peaceably with everyone.  His shed blood can overcome bad blood; His cross can put feuds to death.  Peacemakers sometimes get turned on by both sides.  But they know that it’s worth it in the end.  They will be called sons of God in the Son of God, and so they are blessed.

    The world says, “Blessed are those who maintain the status quo, who keep what they believe to themselves, who compromise with the world, for that’s how you get ahead in life.”  But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    If you seek kingdom of God and His righteousness, persecution will come, because the world doesn’t want anything to do with that.  It wants a righteousness based on its own good living and not on Jesus.  But the disciples love the righteousness of Christ above all else despite the cross it brings.  Notice that the persecuted disciples receive the same promise as the poor.  “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  And so the blessing comes full circle.

    Finally Jesus turns and speaks directly to His followers.  Only His disciples can understand this last benediction. “Blessed are you, when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  To share in the persecution of the prophets is to share in the sufferings of the One the prophets proclaimed, Jesus Christ.  Therefore He says, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven.”  If you have been united with Jesus in His death, you will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.

    For now, you can only believe that promise of our Lord.  But in the end you will see what He has promised.  You are not cursed.  You will come to the fulfillment of your baptism, and all those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb will be gathered before His throne–from the newly baptized, to prophets and apostles, saints and martyrs, blessed Mary and Paul and Peter and John, as well as the saints whom we will remember in a moment today.  On that Last Day God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  There will be no more sorrow or pain; for the former things will have passed away. You will no longer hunger and thirst, but you will sit at His table and be filled with His goodness and life forever.  And so you are blessed indeed in Jesus.

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

(With thanks to William Cwirla)

Render to God the Things That are God’s

Matthew 22:15-22
Trinity 23

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

    Politics and religion are things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite conversation, if you want to avoid conflict.  But our Lord Jesus was never one to avoid conflict, and the Word of God for today requires us to talk about both politics and religion.  For God is at work in both arenas–in the left hand kingdom of the Law, and in the right hand kingdom of the Gospel.

    For some people, politics is almost a religion in itself; they daily pay attention to the latest news and polls and political talk shows, acting as if everything important hangs on who gets elected–as if Jesus isn’t still at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all and King of kings.  Everything is seen through a political lens, conservative or liberal, republican or democrat.

    And it goes the other way, too.  Some are very political in their religion.  They see their religion as a means to accomplish political goals in the kingdoms of this world.  For them being Christian is all about “social justice” or getting certain laws and policies enacted and trying to set up the kingdom of God on this earth, as if sin and evil could be overcome and a near-perfect world could be established by the right laws and political structures.  But the kingdom of God is not of this fallen world; we know that no utopia can be established that is comprised of and run by sinful human beings.  We are only pilgrims here, this is not our home.  And so while Christians do work for the good of their fellow man in this life, the church is especially about proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ so that people might have eternal life with God.  One of the results of the fall is that we tend to confuse politics and religion and their God-given place in our lives.

    That certainly happens in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees try to entangle Jesus in His talk.  They don’t like many of the things He’s been saying, so they see if they can trip Him up publicly.  These religious Pharisees get together with some Herodians, who were political types, supporters of King Herod and the Roman political structure.  The Pharisees had nothing in common with the Herodians except that they both wanted to get rid of Jesus–politics makes strange bedfellows.  After trying to flatter Jesus, they asked the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Of course, here’s the trap.  If Jesus says “no,” then He is guilty of treason against Rome and the political Herodians would be the first to report Him.  If Jesus says “yes,” it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of disloyalty to Israel, and the religious Pharisees could use that to turn the common people against Him.

    They must have thought they were pretty smart; they must have thought they had Jesus cornered.  Just as we like to think we’re pretty smart, too, the way we can turn everything into a complicated ethical dilemma as soon as the Word of God starts getting a little too close for comfort and condemning us for our sin.  We’re good at changing the subject or coming up with questions about the latest issue of the day that distract from the main issues of repentance and forgiveness, of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us.   Don’t play tricks with God; don’t try to avoid His words to you with the clever language of lawyers and loopholes.  He knows the way you try to evade Him and who He is and what He says.

    Repent.  Jesus will not be distracted.  He will not be caught in men’s feeble traps.  He asks the Pharisees and the Herodians to show Him the tax money.  And He says to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”  They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”  The coin had a portrait of Tiberias on the one side, and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other.  The inscription declared Tiberias to be the great ruler.  Then Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at His words and went their way.  You get the sense that Jesus wants to get beyond mere politics to the real business of theology, the things of God.

    But first things first.  Politics does have its place.  Romans 13 says that God has established those who are in civil authority, whomever they might be.  Therefore, we are to honor them, pray for them, follow the laws of the land–as long as they do not cause us to sin–and yes, we are to pay our taxes, even if at some point paying taxes feels more like being extorted. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  

    Now if the civil authorities try to cause us to sin–to deny His Word in some way, to do things that are morally wrong or that go against our faith in Christ, then we are duty bound to disobey Caesar.  We only honor Caesar for God’s sake.  And if Caesar wants us to deny the God who gave him his civil authority, we must obey God rather than men, as Peter says in the book of Acts.  And so we don’t submit to Caesar’s sinful redefinition of marriage just because it’s “the law of the land”; we don’t support or condone in any way the legal expendability of life in the womb.  And after the huge overreaction of the government to COVID and their big grab for power and control, we’ve certainly learned that if they ever try to tell us again that we can’t gather for worship or that we can only gather in a certain way, we will respectfully reply, “We’re going to listen to God’s commands, not yours, thank you very much.”  If the day comes when the church is persecuted for standing firm for her beliefs, we recognize that God is even at work there.  He works all things, even the evils of ungodly government for our eternal good, for the purification of the church and for the strengthening of our confession of the faith.  The church has always been strongest in times of persecution.  For God accomplishes His greatest good through suffering, most especially through the cross of our Lord Jesus.

    Which brings us to the second half of Jesus’ statement, which is really the more important.  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”  Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  Paying taxes is really nothing, then.  God wants all of you–all you are and all you have.  He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty.  And then you get back to your real life out there.  He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do.  He Himself is your life, isn’t He?  The Source, the Creator, the Redeemer.  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him.  That starts with the 10% that should go in the offering plate here–why should we give less than Israel did in the OT?–but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.

    Remember, it’s all about the image.  The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar.  And what bears God’s image?  You do.  You are in the image of God.  And so you are given to God.

    But also remember this.  You do not give yourself to God.  You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of the God Himself according to Colossians 1.  The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just as an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh.  And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice. Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood.  And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself.  It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  There is Jesus on His throne for you.
    You see, when it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins.  So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him.  It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation.  He alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.”  To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.

    And there is still more.  For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name.  On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself.  In Jesus the very image of God is restored to your humanity.  You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure.  What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us?  We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord.  And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices by loving our neighbor.

    For we know that we are now citizens of heaven.  We are as foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life.    You are citizens of this country only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity.  Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country.  Let your highest attachment be not to the American flag but to the holy cross.  Let that be the real joy and delight of your hearts.  St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”  By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation on the day of resurrection, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection.  Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world.  Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    So, render unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His.  Let us above all else, give allegiance to the eternal Father, and to Jesus who is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, holding to His saving Word and to our catechism and creeds which faithfully confess that Word.  Let us raise up the holy crucifix of Christ as our great flag, the banner of salvation.  For though it is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, Christ’s cross remains the power of God and the wisdom of God and the only way to enter His everlasting, unshakable kingdom.

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

There's No Math in Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35
Trinity 22

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

    When I was a student in school, I enjoyed math.  It came naturally to me.  I liked the multiplication tables and the patterns in the numbers.  My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Fischer, told my parents that I should go into computers as a career.  What I especially liked was how everything makes sense in math.  There are clear right and wrong answers.  If you use the formulas and do the work correctly, everything works.  There’s no uncertainty about it.  There’s a goodness and beauty to the algebraic equations and the geometry and the physics of things.  Of course, then I took AP Calculus as a senior in high school which didn’t make quite as much sense to me, I got a C, and that’s where my math journey ended.  

    Whether or not you liked math in school, the reality is that we all tend to approach life in a mathematical way.  Particularly in our relationships, we want the equation to be balanced and proportional, for everything to add up and be equal so that no one gets taken advantage of.  You do this for me, then I’ll do that for you. If someone mistreats us, we’re inclined to subtract the amount of kindness we show them.  We keep a mental tally adding up the wrongs that have been done to us.  In the legal realm, we believe that there should be measured consequences for people that do wrong.  What God says in the Old Testament makes a lot of sense, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth.”  That’s a balanced equation.  It’s a fair and just punishment.  It’s proportional.  And in the realm of the Law, that is good.  Another way of saying it is that the punishment should fit the crime.  Restitution should be made that is mathematically equal to what was stolen and the financial damage that was caused, and so forth.  When God established this form of justice for Israel, it actually protected people from disproportionate punishment that was vengeful, from increasingly violent retaliation.  With governments and civil authorities, an eye for an eye is a just way of doing things, and a much better way than mob rule or vigilante justice.

    God’s Law is mathematically satisfying like that.  Of course, a huge problem arises for us when we hear what the just punishment for our own sinful rebellion against God is.  “The wages of sin is death.”  That may not seem fair until God’s Word brings us to see the depths of our own depravity in thought, word, and deed, our failure to love and trust in Him as we should, our constant obsession with ourselves and our own needs and desires.  We are like the servant who owed the king 10,000 talents.  Just one talent was the equivalent of about 6000 days of work.  So, doing the math, that’s 60,000,000 days of work which the servant would have to do to cover his debt.  In other words, he could never pay it back.  That massive amount of debt points to the absolute futility of us trying make up for the debt we owe to God.  It’s a sign of how deeply ingrained our sin is that we think we can make things right with God by just being a good or spiritual person.  Even if I spent every moment of every day doing good works to try to pay my debt to God, it wouldn’t be anywhere near close to enough.  And besides, if I’m doing these things for my own benefit, to save myself, are they even good works to begin with?

    Our only hope comes not from the Law but from the Gospel, not from mathematical precision and fairness, but from forgiveness and mercy.  When the first servant in the Gospel pleads for more time to pay his debt–as if that would help–the King does an amazing and unexpected thing.  He completely forgives the debt!  No math was applied here in coming up with a payment plan or marking it down by some percentage.  Rather, it was just completely wiped off the books.  And this is exactly what God has done for us in His Son Jesus.  Our Lord absorbed the debt we owed; he took the hit and paid the price.  His death on the cross purchased our freedom and released us from that worst of all bill collectors, the devil.  Your account is settled by God’s mercy.  You are free from the power of sin, free from hell, free from being afraid of God.  You are forgiven.  You’ve been given a new life and a new beginning.

    So now what?  What does this mean for the way we live and for our relationships with others?  The fact is that it’s hard for us to give up our mathematical, record-keeping ways, isn’t it.  It certainly was for Peter.  He comes up with a mathematical rule, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?  Up to seven times?”  We might say that number’s actually a little too generous, considering he didn’t take into account whether these were minor sins or major sins.  We might come up with a more sophisticated sliding scale: Ten times if it’s something little; only one time if it’s something big.

    But Jesus’ answer shows that Peter shouldn’t really be using math at all.  Our Lord says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Now, that’s still math, you may say.  But the point is clear.  Are you really going to be keeping track all the way up to 490 times, making a little tally mark in your notebook of other people’s sins against you?  How absurd would that be?  Jesus’ point is to stop counting, stop using mathematical rules of the Law as your guide.  You have freely received an immeasurable amount of forgiveness from God.  Pass that forgiveness along to others also without measure.  

    Interestingly, Jesus’ words could also be translated as “Not seven times but seventy-seven times”–which is significant because there are exactly seventy-seven generations from Adam to Christ.  In Adam all die, but then Christ comes in whom all are made alive.  Every generation is covered, no one is left out of the full gift of divine forgiveness through the shed blood of Christ.  But whether it’s seventy-seven or seventy times seven, the meaning is the same–perfect forgiveness multiplied without measure for all people.  That is how God is toward us.  That is how we are to be toward others.  To limit your forgiveness is to limit God’s forgiveness, and that invites His judgment.

    So it is that the first servant goes out from the king’s presence.  You would think he’d be filled with joy with such a huge burden lifted from his shoulders.  You’d think he’d be like Ebenezer Scrooge with a changed and merry heart on Christmas morning.  But instead, the first servant in the parable goes out and finds a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, 100 days’ worth of wages.  That’s not a small amount of money; just like the sins done against us sometimes cause us not a small amount of pain.  But in comparison to what he had just been forgiven, it was pocket change.  And yet, the first servant grabs the other servant by the throat and says, “Pay me what you owe!”  And when he couldn’t and begged for time, the first servant had him thrown in prison.  He couldn’t let go of his mathematical bookkeeping ways and allow the king’s freeing mercy to be passed along to others, to the great grief of everyone who saw what was happening.

    When the king heard about this, he was enraged.  “You evil servant! . . . Should you not have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?”  The king had the servant thrown into jail until he paid off all the debt.  Hell could be defined as the place where everyone gets to pay off their own debt for all eternity.

    Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  Hear those words well.  If you are harboring a grudge or withholding forgiveness or desiring revenge, hell is your destiny.  Let those words crush that hardened, unforgiving heart.  Repent, so that Jesus’ forgiveness might freely flow first to you and then through you to your neighbor.  For He desires to rescue you from your unforgiveness.

    Unforgiveness is a hardening of the heart, a clog in the artery of faith that is eventually lethal.  When we refuse to forgive, we put ourselves in opposition to God and destroy our own desire to be forgiven.  People who harbor grudges rarely, if ever, are found on their knees confessing their own sins before God.  People who try to settle the score for every wrong done to them rarely acknowledge the score God settled when He hung Jesus on a cross to pay the price for their sinfulness.  Those who refuse to be reconciled with others also refuse to be reconciled to  God.  We cannot be on our knees and at each other's throats at the same time.

    Please note here that to forgive “from the heart,” as Jesus says, does not mean that forgiveness is a feeling but that it is an act of the will.  You don’t have to be in a forgiving mood to forgive.  And the other person doesn’t even have to be sorry, for that matter.  They might reject your mercy.  Forgiveness simply means we do not return evil for evil, anger for anger, sin for sin.  We don’t let what they did to us enslave us, filling us with poisonous bitterness, making us want get back at them and make them suffer.  We dismiss their sin and let it go.  For remember, Jesus not only took your sins on Himself, but also all the sins that have been done to you.  He bore your abuse and your humiliation, too.  All of that He took away from you; all of that He put to death on the cross.  Your enemy’s sins have been answered for, too.  If there is to be vengeance for them, that belongs to the Lord, not to us.  Since God deals with you in love because of what Jesus has done, you now have the ability and the freedom 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.

    You may not be able to forget what’s been done to you.  But that’s OK; Forgiveness is not amnesia.  God does not forget the sins He forgives.  Instead He refuses to act on them because he remembers that He has already done them to death at the cross.  That’s what the Bible means when it says that “God remembers our sins no more.”  God doesn’t dwell upon them or think about them; He puts them out of His mind.  Instead, He dwells upon what His Son has done for us.  God doesn't get even with us because Jesus evened us up with God (and then some) by offering His perfect life in our place.  In the same way, we don’t necessarily forget what we forgive.  How can you forget adultery or murder or abuse or betrayal?  It means we don’t act on it; we don’t try to get even.  We are the conduits and pipelines of God’s forgiveness to others.  And that forgiveness is mathematically limitless, as limitless as the merits and love of Jesus. We lose nothing when we forgive.  For we draw it all from Christ.

    The body and blood of Christ are here for you today with that immeasurable forgiveness of sins.  Math doesn’t apply here, only infinite and incalculable divine love.  Revel in receiving the mercy of God here at this altar.  Revel in being an instrument of the mercy of God to others out in the world.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for a couple of the thoughts in the final paragraphs)

Created by The Word

Genesis 1:1 - 2:3
Trinity 21

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

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” All things have a beginning except God.  He alone is eternal and uncreated.  We reject the evolutionist belief that the stuff of this universe has always been here and somehow formed itself into what we see now.  For then we would be declaring the universe to be eternal, making a god out of creation rather than the Creator.  That is the very definition of idolatry.

    The God who created all things out of nothing is the Triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Even in the beginning, we have a glimpse of God in His three-in-oneness.  The Father creates.  The Word of the Son is spoken.  The Spirit of God hovers over the water.  The Father creates through the Word, His Son, and He does it by the Holy Spirit who is in and with the water.  You can see here that creation and baptism are intimately connected with one another.  Both are beginnings, creation and new creation, the work of the Father through the Son in the Spirit with the water.

    Interestingly, the Gospel of John in the New Testament begins just like Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made.”  The Word is Jesus, the Word made Flesh. Through the living Word of His Son, God created everything out of nothing. “Let there be light,” the Word says, “and there was light.” The Word is powerful and creative.  He brings about what He says.  Through the Word all things were made–water and sky, plants and trees, fish and birds, animals and man. All creatures owe their existence to Christ the Word, whether they know Him or not.  In fact, it is written in Colossians 1 that not only were all things created through the Son of God but that in Him all things hold together still.  Jesus is the Logos, He is the logic, the wisdom of the universe.  The Laws of nature, the intricate complexities of the smallest strand of DNA to the largest galaxy, the beauty and the orderliness and the liveliness of creation all find their source in Him. 

    One of the many reasons we reject evolution as the origin of life, then, is because it’s opposed to this Scriptural truth of the centrality of Christ.  It imagines that all this beauty and order and life can be produced by chance random processes, that chaos can order itself, without any person doing the designing and organizing and sustaining.  To use a familiar example: if I were to say that an auto assembly plant exploded, and out of that Big Bang, perhaps after a long time, came a perfectly assembled car, you’d think I was a stupid.  And yet what evolution proposes is infinitely more improbable than that; for our eyes, our brains, our DNA are vastly more complex in their design than a car.  Not only does evolution fail to say where all the stuff in the universe came from (which is no small matter); the key question that evolution has yet to explain is:  how can life come from something that’s not alive?  Such a thing has never ever been done in the laboratory in even the most rudimentary way.  We know that life only comes from another living thing, and that the Source of all life is God.  The fact that there are similarities among living things is not a sign that we have the same ancestors, but that we have the same Creator.  Our God is like a great artist who in His creatures shows a definite style to His work.  

    Of course, there are some who try to embrace both sides of the debate:  Believe in God and believe in evolution.  They propose that God created all things through the process of evolution.  But that is mere fantasy and a delusion when compared to Scripture.  For not only do the time frames not work–7 ordinary days of evening and morning vs. billions of years–but the way in which all life, especially human life, comes into being couldn’t be more different.  For the evolutionist, to get to human beings like you and me, death has to be in existence right from the start.  It’s a necessary factor in the process of only the strong surviving and supposedly developing into higher and higher forms of life.  There’s all sorts of death and bloodshed before human beings ever come on the scene.  But there is no death at all in Genesis 1 and 2, not even among the animals.  Full-fledged human beings are present before there is any death.  What does Scripture say? “The wages of sin is death.”  First God creates human beings, and then there’s death after they fall into sin.  Evolution turns that Scriptural truth completely upside down and replaces it with a lie.  For by denying that death is the wages of sin, it denies the need for a Savior from sin.  It denies Christ.  It undermines the Gospel which says that Christ took the wages of death upon Himself to free us from the curse of sin when He died in our place on the cross.  Denying the Biblical narrative of creation undermines and contradicts belief in Jesus.  For Jesus is the creative Word made flesh who alone breaks the curse on this fallen world by His death and resurrection and who brings the new creation.

    It is only after the fall of mankind in the Garden that we see and experience death and disorder and decay all around us. It is written, “The whole creation groans.” These groanings can be heard in the earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes and fires that turn order into a pile of disordered rubble. Many creatures no longer multiply as they once did.  Species go extinct.  Weeds grow in our garden.  Our attempts to rule over and use this creation often end up harming creation.

    Above all, we see this death and disorder in ourselves.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, turned away from God’s creative and ordering Word and believed the father of lies, who said that God is not to be trusted.  The Lie turned the creature against the Creator.  Turned inward on ourselves, the image of God is broken in us.  There is disorder in our homes and our relationships with others.  There is disorder in our hearts, where what we desire and what we know is right are in conflict.  There is disorder in our bodies, where sickness and bodily ailments take their toll, leaving us finally in the disordered dust of the grave.  

    The Word brings life.  The Lie brings death.  The Word says, “Be fruitful and multiply.  Children are a gift from the Lord.”  The Lie says, “Children are a burden, not a blessing.  Better not have too many; that will leave too big a carbon footprint on this planet.”  The Word says, “The two shall become one flesh. . . What God has joined together.”  The Lie says, “You don’t need God to join you together in  marriage to have sex.  Follow your heart’s desires.”  The Word says, “Male and female He created them.”  The Lie says, “Male and male is fine; female and female is fine.  People should be free to love whomever they want, even to live according to whatever gender they choose.”  The Word says, “Have dominion over creation; fill the earth and subdue it.  Continue God’s creative and ordering work.”  The Lie says, “Humans and animals are equals.”  The Word says, “God is your Father; you shall be as He is.”  The Lie says, “The animals are your ancestors; you shall behave as they do.”  The Lie says, “You’re fine just the way you are; no need for you to change.”  The Word says, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”

    And here is that Gospel: Just as He did in the very beginning, yet again 2000 years ago God spoke His Word into the chaos and darkness of this fallen world.  The Father spoke His Word by the Spirit to a young girl named Mary, and the creative Word was made Flesh in her womb. The creative and ordering Word who made all things and set them in order in the beginning was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary in the person of Jesus.

    Jesus entered this world bearing our humanity to set things in order once again, to battle the darkness and the disorder. He healed the diseased. He cast out demons. He brought mercy and forgiveness to tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, calling them out of darkness into His marvelous light.  He brought order to our disordered humanity.  He undid the damage of the Lie and took the curse of the Law against our rebellion.  Jesus took into Himself the disorder and the darkness and the decay and the death and He conquered it all in His body on the cross.

    When Jesus rose bodily from the grave on the first day of the week, a new and eternal light dawned.  The resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation.  Just as light first shone into the darkness on the first day of the old creation, so the light of Christ broke through the darkness of our death on the first day of the week.  A new creation has broken in even as this old one is passing away.

    And the creation account itself in Genesis actually foretells and foreshadows this saving work of Christ.  For notice how the days are marked: it’s not morning and then evening the way we usually think of it, but first evening and then morning.  First it’s darkness, then it’s light.  First it’s the shadow of death, then it’s the light of life.  Jesus dies in the darkness of Good Friday to subdue creation, which literally shook at His death, and then He rises at the dawn of Easter on the first day of the week to be the Light of the world, to put an end to death and to bring about a new creation.

    Man was created on the sixth day, and then God rested on the seventh.  In the new Adam, Jesus, man was redeemed on the 6th day, Good Friday.  Then He rested in the tomb on the seventh day with His work finished.  And He rose again to bring about an eternal eighth day.  The Scriptures say that in the new creation there will be no night.  For the Lord God will be its light and the Lamb will be its lamp.  We will need no rest; for He Himself is our rest and our peace.  From Him flows mercy and forgiveness and life.  In Jesus the image of God is restored to us.  In Jesus our lost humanity is given back to us, and we are made fully human again.

    And all of this is accomplished by the words of God.  He speaks, and it is so.  “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Jesus says to the nobleman in the Gospel, “Your son lives,” and indeed he lives and is well.  Jesus’ Word, the sword of the Spirit, accomplishes what it says.  And so it is for you.  Jesus speaks His Word to you, and His Word creates what He says.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  And your hearts and minds are stilled and calmed.  “I forgive you all your sins.”  And your sins are truly removed from you as far as the east is from the west.  “This is My body; this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And indeed, by that Word, the bread actually is His body and the wine actually is His blood, that you may be cleansed and filled with His life and light.  God’s creative Word is still in effect for you.  Like the nobleman in the Gospel, trust in that Word.  Cling to it.  Believe it that you may receive its blessing.  For only the Word of Christ can recreate you and put you back in order again.  It is written, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.”  “Then God saw everything that He had made in Christ, and indeed it was very good.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for some of the above)

Practical Forgiveness

Mark 2:1-12
Trinity 19

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

    Sometimes church doesn’t seem particularly practical.  We come and we hear about God’s Law and sin, we hear about Jesus and forgiveness, and we’re tempted to say, “That’s all well and good, but I’ve got some really important issues that I need help with in my life.  My marriage is strained right now.  With all this inflation I’m having a hard time just paying the bills.  It’s not easy trying to raise kids in this crazy and messed up culture.  I’m dealing with health issues and pain every day.  I’m paralyzed by depression and anxiety.  I just lost a loved one.  I feel isolated.  I don’t need the same old doctrine and theology, I need practical help right now.  I need something that’s going to give me a spiritual boost and make me feel closer to God.  Forgiveness is fine, but I need something more.”

    Perhaps similar thoughts were going through the mind of the paralytic at the beginning of today’s Gospel.  There he is, lying on his stretcher-bed, the one that his friends had worked so feverishly to get lowered before Jesus, literally going through the roof because of the crowds.  They had certainly come with the expectation and hope that Jesus could help him and heal him.  I mean, why else would they have gone to such great lengths?  I don’t think that they went through the roof simply so that they could hear Jesus better.  They were undoubtedly looking for something more.  They rightly believed, passionately so, that Jesus could help the paralyzed man.

    And yet, it is written that when Jesus saw their faith, this is what he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”  That’s it.  Nothing else.  And that might well have been the end of the story, except that some scribes got upset at Jesus and thought He was blaspheming for doing this.  “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” they say.  Of course, they answered their own charge, didn’t they?  Yes, only God can forgive sins, and guess who Jesus is–God in the flesh, the Word incarnate, Son of God and Son of Man.  Surely God was in that place, and the scribes did not know it.  “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” Jesus says.  God the Father forgives sins in and through His Son, the Man Jesus.  That’s what Jesus offers and gives to this paralyzed man.

    But why does Jesus deal with the paralytic in this way?  You could see how the bed-ridden man might have taken offense at Jesus’ words.  “Are you blaming the victim?  Are you saying that the reason I’m like this is my own fault, that it’s because of my sin?”  But Jesus doesn’t particularly focus on what the implication of His words might be.  He simply says, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”  In the Gospel of Matthew it is recorded that Jesus preceded His absolution with the words, “Take heart; be of good cheer.  Your sins are forgiven you.”  There we begin to see the reason why Jesus addresses the paralytic as He does.  The man who had to be carried wherever he went certainly must have felt the spiritual burden of his condition.  “Has God forgotten me?  Is this a punishment for my sins?  Does God love me or is He angry with me?”  All of that is addressed in Jesus’ words, “Be of good cheer.  God is on your side.  I am with you.  Your sins are forgiven you.”

    It is very often in times of trouble or physical distress that our conscience attacks us.  “Is this a sign of God’s disfavor toward me?”  When the body isn’t well, that’s a reminder of our spiritual unwellness before God.  The fact is we are all very much like this man on the stretcher–inwardly paralyzed by our  sin.  Just as the paralytic couldn’t move his limbs, neither can we do anything by our own strength that moves us toward God or merits favor with Him.  Just as the paralytic couldn’t work, neither can we on our own power do works that are counted as good and holy in God’s sight.  It’s all limp and corrupted.  But then we are carried before Jesus, even as our parents literally carried most of us to the baptismal font, and Jesus speaks to the deepest need of our troubled souls. He says to you yet again today, right now, “Child, don’t be dismayed and discouraged; be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven you.”  God is with you and for you.  In Christ you are at peace with the Father.  Take heart.

    Jesus addresses those who questioned His authority to forgive by saying, “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”–then He said to the paralytic, ‘Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.’ And he arose and departed to his house.”

    The proof that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins was in the healing of this man’s body. That outward cure confirmed and uncovered the truth of the greater inward cure. For the real and lasting power that brings physical healing and restoration is the forgiveness of sins.  After all, the Bible says that death came into the world through sin. In other words, everything that troubles us, everything that causes us to deteriorate and lose our health and finally die is a result of the sin to which we are all in bondage. So it follows that if the sin is taken away and forgiven, then the consequences of sin will also be taken away–the sickness and paralysis and disease and pain will also, in turn, be removed. If the wages of sin is death, the forgiveness of sins is life, including full bodily life.  Now there’s a good reason to invite your friends and family to church: tell them that we raise people up here from disease and death whenever the forgiveness of sins is pronounced.

    So when Jesus healed this paralytic, He didn’t actually give him anything new.  Jesus simply revealed what the paralytic had already been given when He forgave his sins.  Jesus first went right to the root of the problem.  He didn’t only treat this man’s physical problems, the outward symptoms and effects of sin.  Jesus destroyed the deadly sin-cancer itself.  This paralyzed man is healed as soon as Jesus forgives him.

    And that’s exactly how it is also for you. The power of Christ to heal your body and your mind and your soul and eternally restore your lives is contained in His words, “I forgive you all your sins.”  For those absolving words get to the heart of the situation. They deal with the very spiritual syndrome which attacks and eventually tears down your life.  You may suffer from any number of aches or pains or physical or mental ailments.  But when Jesus pronounces to you the forgiveness of your sins, He is also restoring your entire being to the blessedness of paradise and healing you.  For Christ has taken away the very source from which those troubles come.

    Now, that healing is probably not visible to you yet.  You may not feel any differently.  For just as it was with the paralytic, there is a delay between the forgiveness being spoken and the healing being revealed, just like there’s often a delay between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder.  The one comes now, the other in all its fullness at the return of Christ.  But the point here is that they are intimately connected.  In fact they are one and the same thing.  To be forgiven is to be healed and made whole, in both soul and body–by faith now, by sight on the Last Day. Therefore, you can face your troubles and your health issues with bold confidence and firm trust in God.  For all of your prayers are answered most profoundly, all of your needs are addressed most deeply in Christ’s words of absolution.

    What could be more practical than that?  Forgiveness addresses not just our perceived needs, but our real and deeper needs–fellowship with God, a restored and clear conscience, confidence in who we are as His beloved children.  When you say, “I have problems; I need answers; my life’s a mess, I sure could use a miracle,” our Lord replies, “Here’s your miracle: your sins are forgiven you.  I was paralyzed for you on the cross to release you from the bondage of sin’s curse.  I was lowered into the depths of the grave to set you free from the power of death.  And I arose from my mortal bed so that you also might rise with me in glory to a life that is free from disease and trouble and pain.  Every problem and trouble you face is conquered and overcome in Me.  I will see you through it.  Trust in Me.  Cling to my words.  Walk with me by faith till the day of Resurrection comes.  All of those prayers you’ve prayed for healing and relief are answered with a resounding ‘yes’ in Me.  There is peace and contentment and even joy for you right now as you wait for those answered prayers to come to pass, when I return and tell you also to rise.”

    It is written, “All the promises of God find their Yes in [Jesus]” (2 Corinthians 1:20).  He says “yes” to your prayers here in Lord’s Supper.  Here is the remedy that heals you, the medicine of immortality, the living body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, to enliven you and make you whole.  Here is the gate of heaven, where you are not only close to God, you actually commune with Him.  Surely God is in this place, and you have been given to know it.  Here you partake of Him who is the Life in the flesh, who incorporates your bodies into His own, and who will therefore raise you from the grave just as He was raised.

    So be of good cheer. Through Jesus God is not angry with you.  Do not be angry with Him. Be at peace.  Your sins are forgiven you. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation and the resurrection of the body.

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