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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 ✠

Stopping Our Work to Receive Christ's Work

Luke 14:1-14
Trinity 17

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

    When we were in the Holy Land last year, one of the interesting things that we ran across in a couple places was something called a Shabbat elevator, a Sabbath elevator.  There were no buttons to press.  The elevator would stop at every floor on the way up and on the way down.  That way a pious Jew could keep the Sabbath by not doing the “work” of pressing the button.  A lot of us got a good chuckle out of the silliness of that and how it completely missed the point of the 3rd Commandment.

    The Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading also seem awfully silly like that, don’t they?  It’s easy for us to mock how ridiculous they are.  None of us would think for a minute that it would be bad for someone to be healed on the Sabbath.  God was obviously not forbidding that when He told us to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  Why would it be OK for someone to get a trapped animal out of a pit but not OK to help someone trapped and afflicted with some disease?  To us that just seems absurd.  It’s easy for us to justify ourselves and think that we certainly would have done better than the Pharisees.

    But don’t just dismiss them.  It’s worth considering, why is it that they were thinking that way?  What did they wrongly believe that led them astray?  They were thinking that the way they would be counted as good and righteous in God’s sight was by how well they kept His commandments.  That’s a common belief to this day, isn’t it?  And keeping the Sabbath was a particularly important commandment.  Every seven days they were to stop their work, just like God did on the seventh day of creation.  In their mind, it was an offense against the Creator to do any work, even if it was something good like a healing; there were six other days for that.  Especially someone who was a teacher like Jesus should know better, they thought.  If He was a true prophet of God, He would be setting an example which showed that righteousness comes through obedience to God’s Law. 
    Now as Lutherans, we think we’re pretty well defended against the Pharisees’ false teaching.  We’ve rightly had it drilled into us that we’re saved not by our own works, but by Christ alone and what He has done for us.  However, we sometimes then fall into the opposite error of the Pharisees.  I mean, why is it that so many Christians are tempted to just disregard the 3rd commandment?  Why are so many gone from church for weeks and months at a time and are not remembering the Sabbath day? Is it possible that we actually have the same root problem as the Pharisees?  Think about it:  If people believe they can do without the preaching of Christ and the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, there’s only two possible reasons for that: either they don’t think they have any real sins that need to be forgiven, or they think that their own private spirituality and efforts at good living are enough to merit God’s forgiveness and favor.  And so Jesus’ words and sacraments become basically non-essential, just something perhaps for Christmas and Easter.  Do you see?  In the end it’s the exact same sin as the Pharisees, thinking that righteousness comes by what we do, apart from Christ’s divine service to us.  Those who purposely skip church are trusting in their own works instead of Christ’s works, just like the Pharisees.

    Now of course, there will be times here and there when you simply can’t make it to divine service because of sickness or an unexpected work obligation and the like.  We don’t want to descend into Pharisaic legalism here.  But imagine if people treated the other commandments the way they do with “Remember the Sabbath Day.”  Think of how ridiculous it would sound: “I only commit murder a couple months out of the year when the weather is warmer; most of the time, though, I respect human life.” Or “I refrain from adultery, except when the kids have sports or when I’m working. Otherwise, I’m a faithful spouse.”  Or “Stealing once or twice a month isn’t a big deal; I earn my own way most of the time.”.  And yet, that’s the way many talk about remembering the Sabbath day, as it if it were merely a suggestion that we could sometimes ignore based on our plans and desires.  Even if we thought we didn’t have any need for church at all, even if we thought it was completely pointless, still we should be eager–simply because God has commanded it–to hold preaching and His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

    And it truly is a glad thing to remember the Sabbath day, because it’s not about trying to merit God’s favor by your good church attendance; it’s about receiving God’s favor dished out to you as a free gift in Christ’s preaching and supper.  “Lord to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life!”  The Sabbath day is all about us stopping our work so that we can focus on God’s work and receive His work for us in Christ.  That’s where real Sabbath rest and peace is to be found in this world that is so restless and lacking peace.  This commandment, like all the commandments, is given for our good, not primarily as a burden but as a blessing.

    When Jesus healed on the Sabbath day, He was showing precisely what the day is all about.  We gather around the Great Physician to receive His healing mercy and forgiveness.  What the Pharisees failed to see was that in Christ God was the One doing the work here.  Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.  And the Sabbath work that He does saves us and redeems us in both body and soul.  Again, remembering the Sabbath day means that we stop our work and all the activities and the running around and the busyness of our life to dwell upon on God’s work and receive His divine service to us in Christ.  We focus not on our performance but on what He performs and does for us through His words and water and bread and wine.  And we respond then with glad thanksgiving and praise that confesses what He has done.

    Now it is true that this commandment applies to us in the New Testament differently than it did in the Old Testament.  Back then, the day of rest had to be the 7th day of the week, Saturday.  But with Christ’s coming the Law was fulfilled so that the requirement to worship on a particular day no longer applies.  Colossians 2 says, “Sabbaths are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”  The Old Testament day of rest pointed us forward to Him who is Himself our rest and our peace, namely, Jesus.  Why focus on all the Old Testament shadows when the One who is casting the shadow has come!  

    Just consider how wonderfully Jesus fulfilled the 3rd commandment for us in order to save us.  Not only was it his custom to be in the synagogue each Sabbath where the Word of God was preached and taught; not only did He love being in His Father’s house, meditating on and talking about the Scriptures; but He redeemed and renewed the days of creation, including especially the seventh.  Think of Holy Week as a new creation week.  On the first day, Palm Sunday, the Light of the world entered into Jerusalem to do His Father’s business and carry out the work and the mission He had been given.  He taught and labored throughout that week.  On the sixth day He suffered and died to pay for our sins, triumphantly declaring of His work, “It is finished!”  And then what did He do on the seventh day?  He rested in the tomb, sanctifying our graves and making them a holy place of rest from which we shall rise again on the Last Day.  He then brought into being an eternal 8th day, an unending Easter by conquering death for us.  His bodily resurrection has ushered in a new creation, free from the curse of sin, rich with mercy and divine life.  That is why Sunday is called “the Lord’s Day” in Scripture and is the church’s primary day of worship.  Divine Service can happen on any day of the week, of course, but at its center is always the Word of the risen Savior who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

    Since the Sabbath is all about God’s work, what Jesus is doing, it is necessary that we come before Him with an attitude of humility.  It’s not about us and our works.  This is His show, His teaching, His meal.  Our place at the table is not something for us to achieve for ourselves but for Him to give.  We all come before God as beggars, without any right to exalt ourselves in His presence.  Whatever we are is a gift of His grace.  

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

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

    It is written in Ephesians that you who believe are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. That heavenly place is here for you today.  Jesus is here among us at the head of the table.  To every penitent heart He says, “Friend, go up higher.”  “Come, ascend these steps to this holy place.  Share in My honor by receiving My own body and blood.  Be filled with My forgiveness and My life.  Here is your Sabbath rest and healing.  Here is the foretaste of the Last Day, the day of resurrection, when you will go up higher forever.”

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

Choose This Day Whom You Will Serve

Matthew 6:24-34
Trinity 15

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

    As Lutherans we don’t often use the language of “choosing” when it comes to matters of faith.  For we know that our conversion to the faith was not our choice or decision.  God is the One who turned our cold and unbelieving hearts to faith by His Word and Spirit.  Jesus said to the disciples, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

    And yet, we dare not forget that once we are brought to the faith by the Holy Spirit, we do make choices about how we will live, whether it’s according to the Spirit as God’s redeemed people or according to our old fallen nature.  We can and do choose either to honor God or to bow down to the world’s idols.  Joshua said to Israel of old, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

    Just like OT Israel, we also are surrounded by false gods, the things that vie for the primary devotion of your heart, things that consume your time and attention, things that call you to look to them for happiness, to trust in them for protection.  And so it’s important that you choose actively and intentionally to serve the true God.  Failing to do that is actually to default to serving the idols of the world.  Jesus lays this all out in the Gospel when He says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  Either you’ll be devoted to the Creator above all or to some aspect of this created life above all.  But it can’t be both.  A choice has to be made.

    It’s jarring sometimes when you read the OT to see how frequently the Israelites had household idols that they didn’t give up; or how they would worship the gods and goddesses of the pagan nations around them while still paying lip service to the Lord.  And yet it’s really not all that different today.  People still like to think that they can have multiple gods, multiple spiritual masters, that they can love God and be friends with the pagan world, too.  But the truth is, only one thing can hold the #1 spot in your heart and run the show.  

    Here’s a way to test how it is with you.  What is something in your life that you would consider refusing to give up if God asked you to?  What things cause you to put God in second place when there’s a conflict between the two?  If it’s a choice between God’s approval or your family or friend’s approval, which relationship comes first?  If it’s a choice between holding to God’s Word and potentially harming your job situation, or compromising God’s Word and getting ahead financially, what do you do?  If it’s a choice between divine service or some extracurricular event; if it’s a choice between honoring God or honoring your own desires–where does He rank in the actual day to day practice of your choices?  When it comes right down to it, our hearts are often more strongly attached to people or politics or the praise of our peers or possessions than they are to the Lord.  

    Jesus revealed this one day to a rich young man, who wanted to know what he must to do inherit eternal life.  He had done his best to keep the commandments.  Scripture says, “Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me’” (Mark 10:21).  The idol of mammon had to be dethroned from the rich young man’s heart before he could serve the true God.  And at least at first, he couldn’t do it.  He went away sad.  The good news is, according to tradition, that rich young man was Mark, the writer of the second Gospel, who was eventually brought back by the power of Jesus’ words to repentance and faith and a new life.

    That is where we find hope for ourselves, that even in spite of our idolatries, the Lord looks at us and loves us, and He says to us, “Get rid of your idols.  Put your time and resources to their proper use, and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.”  The Lord doesn’t give up on us, in spite of our divided hearts.  He loves us enough to call us to repentance and away from those idols that would destroy our souls.  He calls us back to who we truly are as His chosen, baptized people.  He calls us to serve and follow Him so that we might have real and eternal life with Him.  You know, you’re going to serve some god or idol no matter what; might as well be the only One whose benefits endure.  Jesus is the only Master where, by serving Him, you are made truly free.

    In today’s Gospel we see that one of the things Jesus came to free you from is anxiety and fear.  He calls you to stand where there is solid footing and certainty, trusting in Him and in His Father’s care.  With mammon there is no certainty; it is undependable, and so there is worry.  There’s always the fear that bad weather or economic downturns or rust or mold or thieves or hackers or scammers will threaten our money and possessions.  Like all the hype leading up to Aaron Rodgers becoming quarterback of the NY Jets, and then the sad reality of it all evaporating in a moment, we know that mammon is only temporary, here today, gone tomorrow.

    Our Lord Jesus seeks to free you from all that by saying, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . . The [pagans] seek after all these things.  Your heavenly Father knows that you need them.”  Take heart in those words, “Your heavenly Father knows. . .”  He knows what you’re dealing with.  He knows what you need.  So don’t be afraid.  And don’t think that the Lord has forgotten you.  For if He is your Father, then you are His children.  And He does not forsake His own family.  He is working all things together for your eternal good.  If he feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, will He not also take care of you who are of much greater value?

    And if you sometimes doubt whether or not you have much worth or value, consider this: What other creature can say that they share in the same nature as the Son of God?  Not even the angels can say that!  Jesus has given you the greatest worth by becoming your blood brother, a real human being.  He sanctified your humanity by taking it into His divinity.  You have infinitely greater value than any animal or anything else in this world.  Next time you’re feeling like you’re not worth much, don’t go down the path of the self-love advice of the world, “I’m beautiful just the way I am.”  No, go down the path of the love of God: He gave His only Son to redeem you and to restore the image of God to you.  It is written in Romans 8, “ He who 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?”  That’s where your worth is, in Jesus, who paid the highest price of His own blood in order to redeem you and have you as His own beloved treasure.  You are beautiful in Christ, forgiven and holy.  And if that is the case, if your Father in heaven has taken care of the big stuff for you–forgiveness of sins and eternal life–well, then certainly you can trust Him with the smaller, temporal stuff, too, right?  Don’t worry; just pray.  It’s in the Father’s hands.

    Though this world is falling apart and winding down to its end, still the eternal Son of God entered into it to claim you and buy you back.  He became like you so that you would become children of the heavenly Father in Him.  Jesus took upon Himself the curse that our sin has brought on creation.  He endured all of its devastation and its corruptness and its death for you on the cross.  In so doing Jesus caused death itself to die and the curse to be broken.  He destroyed the sin that makes everything only momentary.  He proved that by coming forth from the grave in power, the beginning of a new creation that will never perish, for death no longer has dominion over Him.

    Trusting in Jesus, knowing all that He has done and prepared for you, your worries and fears are calmed.  You are freed from the anxiety that causes you to want to turn to the idols of this world to give you what you want.  For if God has provided so bountifully for your eternal needs, certainly He will care for you in all the necessities of this temporal life.  And even when the hard times come, even if it’s all taken away and God’s care seems to have vanished, we know that we who are His baptized people are not forsaken.  We believe that even when terror and tragedy, sickness and death come, He who created us can and will also recreate us in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  So literally nothing in all creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Not a thing.  In Him all things hold together.

    What is it going to be, then?  What’s your choice, the everlasting Father in heaven or the passing idols of mother earth?  Scripture teaches that you become like what you worship.  Serve mammon and you will eventually pass away; serve the living God and you will have real and enduring life.  

    For the true God first serves you.  The Father gives you clothing, and much more than that, He has robed you in Christ’s righteousness.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  The Father gives you daily bread, and much more than that, He gives you the Bread of Life, feeding you the very flesh and blood of Christ here in the Holy Supper for the forgiveness of sins.  The Father gives you a place to live, and much more than that, He gives you an eternal dwelling place in His own household, as royal children of God in Christ.

    So ponder where the idols are in your life.  And then, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things that you need will be added to you.

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

Isolated Together

Luke 17:11-19
Trinity 14

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

    It would be interesting to know the back story of each of the 10 lepers in today’s Gospel.  The Bible doesn’t tell us much about them, not even their names.  But I’m sure they all had a tale to tell about how they ended up in their current circumstances.  Each one of them had been expelled from the life that they had previously known.  Each one of them were outcasts, cut off from family and friends and society by this contagious skin disease that they had.  Where would they sleep?  How would they eat?  Maybe food was brought out and left for them; maybe they had a way of getting food for themselves.  But the Old Testament Law of God Himself said that they were to live outside of the city and apart from the community.  If anyone came near them, they had to warn them of their uncleanness.  They were isolated and alone.

    But here in the Gospel, we see that they are not alone.  They are isolated together.  They all have the same ailment, so they are drawn to hang out with each other–something that otherwise might not have happened in regular life; even normally estranged Jews and Samaritans are here together.  They are a community of those who are all in the same predicament.  They are a fellowship of outsiders, finding at least some comfort in facing their disease together.  

    It occurs to me that in many ways, this is what the church is.  We all feel isolated in one way or another–sometimes by afflictions of the body or the mind which cut us off from others, sometimes by the duties and the obligations of life that consume most of our time and energy.  Always we are isolated by our sin which alienates us from our neighbor and which divorces us from God’s presence.  We are a motley gathering of people who might not ordinarily hang out together, except for the fact that we all know that we are broken in body and soul, that we don’t really fit in or belong in this fallen world, that we are outsiders looking in from a distance at the life which we were originally created to have.  In that isolation we gather together and are united, a fellowship of those who hope for deliverance from God and a better life and healing in Jesus.

    In the end we are exactly like the lepers in their prayer: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” We’ve already prayed it more than once today, “Lord, have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord, have mercy upon us.”  We’ll continue to pray it later in the liturgy, “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.”  For that is our only hope.  Who knows how the lepers heard about Jesus, but the good news had gotten even to them.  Their prayer may have proceeded from very weak faith, perhaps little more than a cry of desperation.  But it was directed to the right place, to the One who truly is merciful, to the One who hears our cries and our prayers, and whose mercy endures forever.

    We must learn to be like these lepers, to not give up calling on the name of the Lord for help, but to have confidence that He will answer us for our good.  For the temptation exists for us to grow weary of that and to look for our primary fellowship in places other than His church and to put our hope in something other than the mercy of Jesus.  With the God-given institutions of family and church breaking down, various identity groups have risen to fill that void, people who define themselves primarily in terms of their ethnicity or their sexual proclivities or their political ideology.  The truth is, everyone needs fellowship; everyone is a leper looking for some community to belong to, even if it’s just by sharing a common hobby, or a sports team to root for, or a favorite bar to have a drink together at, or a social media interest group to be a part of, or a child’s athletic event to cheer at with other parents.  But we should never fool ourselves into thinking that those things can give us the deeper fellowship that we need and crave, when they only dull the symptoms of our brokenness for a time.  These worldly fellowships promise a place where we can just “be ourselves,” but so often they can end up being a diversion and distraction from our greater need for divine mercy.

    There is no distracting or pretending with Jesus, no call to just look on the bright side and have a positive mental attitude and “manifest your truth” or whatever the current gobbledygook is.  He deals with us as we are, decaying and dying, and He calls us to live by faith that in Him there is real hope and real healing and real fellowship to be had as His followers.  He tells the 10 lepers, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  That’s what you do when you believe that your leprosy is cleansed and healed.  

    The thing is, nothing appeared to be any different with the lepers.  Outwardly they looked the same.  But they believed the promise implicit in Jesus’ words that in fact, things were no longer the same.  And it is written that “as they went,” they were cleansed.  As they held to Jesus’ words and traveled  down the road, they were healed.  

    That’s exactly how it is for you and me.  Jesus comes to us with our leprous spirits and declares to us, “You are clean; you are forgiven; you are holy.  Sin and sickness, death and the devil have no power over you.”  And yet it doesn’t look or feel like much has changed.  By all appearances it seems that we’re still dealing with the same old problems and challenges.  But what has changed is that now we have the words and promises of Jesus to hold onto.  And He does not lie; His words are true and powerful to accomplish what they say.  And so we walk by faith, not by sight.  As we journey, believing Jesus’ Word, we are cleansed and saved and made whole.  Down the road, on the Last Day, our faith will turn to glorious sight, and we will see how what Jesus said was indeed true all along.  Our bodies, together with our souls, will be fully restored and glorified in the presence of Christ.

    We know that Jesus’ words deliver these things to us because of the destination of His journey.  Not only did the lepers go to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests, the Gospel says that Jesus was going there Himself, to be our Great High Priest.  The ten went to get a new lease on life; Jesus, however, went there to give up His life.  His very purpose in coming into this fallen world was to make that ultimate priestly sacrifice to release us from sin and suffering, from death and the devil.  Jesus came into direct contact with our contagion and breathed in our sin-poisoned air; He was afflicted with our afflictions in order to save and rescue us, as it is written, “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”  When Jesus comforted someone, He took their sadness on Himself; when He healed someone, He took their sickness on Himself; when Jesus forgave someone, He took their sin on Himself.  And Jesus has done that also for you.  All of the weight of the fallen world was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, and He carried that load to the cross, where it perished with Him.  Your sin and sorrow and sickness have been overcome, left dead and buried in the tomb from which Christ arose in triumph.  

    Believing in Christ, you have everything now.  Through Him you have healing in the midst of sickness, holiness in the midst of brokenness, victory in the midst of things which overwhelm you, even life in the midst of death.  By faith you have it all in Christ–a truth that will be revealed to all creation at the close of the age.

    That’s how Ephesians 5 can speak of giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Samaritan leper is our example here.  He goes to the true Priest, bowing before Him, worshiping Him, giving Him thanks.  This is what divine service is all about: recognizing the Lord as the Source and the Giver of every good gift, receiving those gifts with thanksgiving, glorifying Him as the leper did with a loud voice–no need for us to be bashful about speaking up and singing out in church.  

    One more thing: Jesus asks a haunting question near the end of the Gospel, “Where are the other nine?”  He might ask of us, “Where are the other 70 who aren’t here this weekend, who didn’t come back to give honor to the Source of their life and healing and joy and hope and every good thing that they have?”  It’s not as if Jesus gets grumpy when He doesn’t get a proper thank you.  But He is saddened by the great harm we do to ourselves when our heart is attached more to the gift than the Giver, more to the creation than the Creator.  You wonder what eventually happened to the other nine.  Scripture doesn’t say.  The one thing we do know is that it’s the outsider who got it right, the one with nothing in himself or his lineage to boast of, the one who was just overwhelmed with thanksgiving for what Christ had done and who bowed before Him as the living Temple of God on earth.

    Let us, then, also bow before the Lord this day; let us kneel at His feet before this altar, where He is truly and bodily present to cleanse leprous sinners like us.  One of the names Christians use for the Lord’s Supper is the Eucharist, from the Greek word for thanksgiving.  For as we receive His life-giving body and blood into our mortal flesh, our hearts are filled with thanks, and our mouths speak out this thanksgiving.  We declare that it is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to God for His mercy in Christ Jesus and especially for giving Himself to us here in this Sacrament.  

    This is what binds us together in a true and lasting fellowship: this communion, this receiving together of the medicine of immortality, this flesh and blood of Jesus which restores our flesh and gives us new life.  Here is the fellowship you seek.  Here is your identity group.  You are Christians.  You are those who call out to the Lord Jesus for mercy and who receive it from Him with a resounding “Thanks be to God.”  Listen again to what Jesus said to the Samaritan, for He speaks it also to you:  “Your faith has made you well.”  Your Jesus has saved you.

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

The Good Samaritan, Jesus and You

Luke 10:25-37
Trinity 13

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

    I imagine that when you heard the reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, many of you thought to yourselves, “I know this one well enough.  Don’t have to listen too carefully; the meaning of this one is easy: you’re supposed to help out strangers and be nice to your neighbors, even if you don’t like them.  It’s basically the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We should all try harder and not make excuses and be more like the Samaritan.”  And that is true as far as it goes.  We should be kind to one another and help those in need.  

    However, that’s actually not the main point of today’s parable.  Jesus is doing much more than just telling us to give it more effort in doing good works.  After all, even the unbelieving world can get on board with a message that we should be kinder and nicer, right?  In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons why people stay away from church–because they think that church is basically just about telling you to be a better and more moral person.  And who wants to take a couple hours out of their weekend to have somebody preach that to you?  Besides, there’s all sorts of people out there giving you advice on how to be a better version of yourself that is more along the lines of what you want to hear anyway.  So who really needs “organized religion?”  However, the church, and today’s Gospel parable, is about much more than that.

    We know that because of the reason why Jesus tells this parable.  He tells it to a lawyer, an expert in the OT law, who was trusting in his own keeping of the law to make himself righteous before God.  This is the kind of guy who actually likes church to be all about moral improvement, because he thinks he’s doing really well, and his religion can affirm that he’s a good person.  The lawyer tests Jesus by asking Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Lawyers almost always ask questions they know the answer to in order to keep the line of questioning under their control.  Jesus goes along with the line of questioning, but responds with a question of His own: “What is written in the Law?  What is your reading of it?”  And the man correctly summarizes it: Love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus tells him, “If you want to gain eternal life for yourself by your own doing, hey, go for it, buddy.  Do that and you’ll live.”  But, of course, the question left hanging out there is, “Can you actually do that?”

    Just think about what the Law demands of you.  It requires that you love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength.  It doesn’t say “some” or “most” but “all,” everything that you are, no exceptions, no failures, God at the heart and center of everything.  James 2 reminds us, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

    And then, there’s more.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Law recognizes that we know how to love ourselves; that comes quite naturally.  Of course, some might say that they don’t actually love themselves, that they’re filled with self-loathing.  But the point still remains the same: whether we like what we see in the mirror or not, we are stuck on ourselves.  We’re focused our wants and our needs.  What the Law is teaching here is that we should be focused on our neighbor and stuck on his needs in the same way that we are always doing that for ourselves.  And we should do that freely, naturally, from the heart, even if our neighbor is someone we don’t like at all.

    This summary of the Law is what Jesus presents the lawyer with.  And you can tell that it made the lawyer uncomfortable and a little defensive, because he then tries to justify himself.  Isn’t that what we do when the Law backs us into a corner?  We come up with excuses and exceptions and defenses and justifications. “I did the best I could, a lot better than most people.”  The lawyer tries out a self-justifying question, “Well, who is my neighbor?”  Maybe if that category can be narrowed down a bit, perhaps to just family and friends, he can claim that he kept that commandment.

    It’s only then that we hear the story of the  Good Samaritan.  So it’s important to understand: Jesus tells this parable not to help the lawyer with his own moral improvement, but rather to cut him down to size, to nuke all of his self-justifying thinking, and to get him to see that he’s in bad shape and needs to be rescued and saved.  So don’t get the idea that the Samaritan is primarily a picture of you in this story.  The Samaritan is first a picture of Jesus.

    Our Lord Jesus is saying to the lawyer and 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 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, 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 with you.  I am the beast of burden here to carry 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 Holy Communion.  He gives you lodging in the Inn which is His holy church.  There 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 for you by His sacrifice on the cross.

    In particular, those two denarii point us to Jesus’ resurrection.  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.”  But notice how Jesus changed the question.  He changed it from the Law to the Gospel.  He said, “Who was neighbor to the man?”  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.  In that sense, you actually are the Good Samaritan in this parable.  You do likewise for those who are in need.  For we see Jesus in those who are weak and suffering.  Since Christ became weak for you and bore all your infirmities and sorrows, you learn to see Him in your neighbor.  You show love for Him by loving them.

    So learn the point of this parable: You don’t have to justify yourself; you actually can’t anyway.  Jesus has taken care of that for you.  You are in the family of God by grace.  And so the promised inheritance is yours in Jesus, 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 to take you to be with Himself in the place that He has prepared for you in His everlasting kingdom.

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

Faith Comes By Hearing

Mark 7:31-37
Trinity 12

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

    “Faith comes by hearing.”  You’ve heard that many times, but think about what that means.  First of all it means that faith is not a private, individual thing.  For in order for there to be hearing, there has to be speaking, right?  There has to be at least two people involved.  That’s why Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of them.”  Christianity is not a solo venture.  The church is defined by preaching and hearing the Word.  

    Even in the beginning, this is how it was.  Adam was the first preacher, Eve was the first hearer.  She wasn’t there, for instance, when God gave Adam the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam, her preacher, taught her that Word of God.  Martin Luther once commented that the church is not a pen-house but a mouth-house.  It’s where the Word of God is spoken out loud and heard and discussed and meditated on.  It’s good to read your Bible on your own in private and to keep that divine Word before your eyes.  But the primary way your faith is created and sustained is through your ears.  What you believe is going to be defined by what you listen to and talk about.  Whoever has got your ears has got your heart.  Guard your ears, therefore.  Don’t think that it’s an inconsequential thing the noise you’re hearing from your TVs and radios and devices.  Christian faith can be damaged or destroyed by constantly hearing the world’s false preaching.  Saving faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.  

    This is especially worth noting today as another school year begins and Sunday School and Bible class resume in 2 weeks.  It is written in Deuteronomy 6, “These words which I command you today shall be in your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”  Talking about God’s Word is to be a normal and regular part of your life, whether it’s in your homes or in your work or here in church.  Having the words of God on our tongues and in our ears is part of how faith is exercised and sustained.  Divine Service is the heart of that.  And Bible study and discussion also need to circle around that.  After all, if you’re going to teach these things diligently to your children and grandchildren as the Deuteronomy passage said, you need to know what you’re talking about.  I’ll never understand why people think Sunday School is necessary for children but Bible class isn’t necessary for adults.  We all need to be in God’s Word constantly, talking about it, hearing it, thinking about what it means and how it connects to our lives.  For Jesus said, “My words are spirit and they are life.”  “Faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.”

    This verse reminds us, then, that faith is very much a bodily thing.  It’s not just an inward, nebulous, spiritual thing.  It involves a congregation of people that gather in the flesh.  It involves bodily senses like hearing.  It involves vocal cords and tongues and eardrums.  And today’s Gospel really drives that point home.  For Jesus is incredibly hands-on, almost uncomfortably physical, in the way that he deals with and heals this deaf-mute.

    It says in the Gospel that they brought the deaf-mute to Jesus and “begged Him to put His hand on him.”  Be careful what you pray for; you might just get it.  Jesus begins by taking the man aside, privately; this isn’t going to be for show.  Since the man cannot hear, Jesus is going to use some actions to convey to him the nature of what he is about to do, a little sign language.  First, He puts His fingers into the man’s ears.  As the Great Physician, He is not afraid to come into contact with what ails us, the gunk of our fallen humanity.  He knows our problems first hand, literally, so that He can truly fix them.  And then Jesus spits and touches the man’s tongue.  The tongue, too, needed to be fixed.  But why spit?  This all seems a little unsanitary, earwax and saliva–not to mention that Jesus is uncomfortably close to this man, invading his space, right in his face.  But this is how our Lord operates.  In order to help us, He has to unsettle us and make us a bit uncomfortable.  We have to be confronted with our natural deafness toward God, our stubborn inclination to listen to other more entertaining voices.  We have to be brought to realize that only His real, physical presence can help and save us.  Only the fingers of God in our ears, only the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word can open our ears to hear Him rightly and believe.  Only what comes from Jesus’ mouth can restore our mouths to confess the true faith and to speak His praises.

    Jesus looks up to heaven.  As the only begotten Son of the Father, Jesus has the authority of heaven on earth to help this man.  And then Jesus sighs.  He groans.  Jesus is moved with emotion as He deals with the damage that sin has done on the earth.  He feels what this man feels, the groaning of a life of hardship.  It isn’t supposed to be like this, humans with their senses and faculties not working.  Creation is all messed up.  Romans 8 says that all creation groans. People are hurting. All this Jesus takes into Himself.  He is moved with compassion at the human condition.

    Finally Jesus speaks a word, that odd-sounding word, “Ephphatha.”  It means “Be opened; be released.”  And when Jesus speaks, things happen.  The man’s ears are opened; and he hears for the first time.  Imagine the overwhelming emotion the man felt, like those videos where someone gets a cochlear implant and is able to hear the voice of loved ones!  And it’s not just his ears that work now, but also his speaking.  His tongue is loosed and released, and he speaks clearly.  What a joyous and amazing thing!  And when the people seewhat Jesus did for him, they are amazed and overjoyed also: “He has done all things well. He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

    These miracles are signs from Jesus of what He will bring to all His people.  You also can look forward to the very same kind of healing from Him.  I know there are many among us who have some degree of hearing loss; for many it is very serious.  Hearing aids only help so much; they can malfunction.  Some of you suffer from ringing in the ears, which is its own sort of hearing loss and ailment.  Children sometimes have tubes put in their ears to improve drainage and avoid infections and other issues.  Lots can go wrong with our ears.  And of course, ear, nose, and throat go together.  These things can affect our voice and our speaking, too.  However, at the second coming of Jesus, in the resurrection on the Last Day, none of the faithful will have any of these issues any more.  Jesus is returning to fix your bodies and renew and glorify them.  He’s coming back to redeem all of this damaged and broken creation.  He will raise your bodies, making them whole and perfect, ready to live forever in a perfectly restored creation, a new heaven and a new earth.  This is what we are looking forward to and what is promised to us as baptized believers, not just souls in heaven but bodily resurrection and restoration.  This is our sure hope and what we set our hearts on: the return of Christ, who will fix what is broken, in us and in creation, who will do all things well.

    All this comes about by the implanted word of Christ, the word of the cross and the resurrection. On the cross, Jesus dealt once for all with our brokenness. All the damage in the world, disease and disability and death, all the faculties and senses not working right, all the people not working right or living right or doing right–all of that is a consequence of man’s rebellion against God, man’s shutting his ears to God in favor of other voices that sound better but end up corrupting us and poisoning us. Things are messed up so thoroughly that we can’t fix it ourselves.  But there is one who can, and who does, and who will.  Jesus, the Son of God came down from heaven, took on our flesh and came finger to ear and finger to tongue with the effects of our sin, and He fixed it.  He bore our sins and all their consequences in his body, the innocent bearing the penalty of the guilty.  Jesus is our substitute and our Savior.  He sighs and groans unto death and breathes His last in order to breathe new life into us.  This is the only way our sin could be forgiven; this is the only way the damage could be undone.  Now Jesus’ grave is opened so that you might be released from your grave on the Last Day and share bodily in His resurrection.

     All of this has been delivered to you in your baptism.  The big fixing job of Good Friday and Easter has been applied to you personally at the font.  There Jesus touched you on the forehead and the heart.  There from the mouth of the Lord water and words were splashed upon you.  There He spoke His powerful “Ephphatha” to you.  And so it happened–you are opened up to God again, released from sin and all of its consequences.  Jesus’ word delivers what it promises.  So trust in it.  It’s yours as a pure gift.  It’s your new identity as a baptized child of God.  

    Now you are able to hear the Word of God rightly and believe it. Now you are able to speak and confess the name of the Lord Jesus, your Savior.  Your ears have been opened to hear the voice of your Good Shepherd.  Your tongue has been loosed to speak plainly what God has done for you and to praise His name–and not only here, but before the world, so that their deaf ears may be opened, too, to hear the joyous melody of the Gospel, and their tongues loosed to the confess the truth of Jesus.  Faith comes by hearing.  It doesn’t come from within you; it comes from outside of you, through the Word of God, as a gift.

    So even when it seems like this fallen world, or sinful people, or your own aging bodies are getting the best of you, you are given to say confidently with St. Paul in Philippians 3, “Christ Jesus will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body by the power the enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.”  The certainty of that for you is in Christ’s body and blood placed on your tongue this day, for the forgiveness of your sins, strengthening you to endure in the faith to the end.  And so we say with the psalmist, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”

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

The Lord Regards the Lowly

Luke 18:9-14; Genesis 4:1-15
Trinity 11

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

    It’s interesting to ponder what life must have been like in the very first family after the fall.  Right from the beginning the relationship between parents and children, between siblings, was deeply affected by the curse.  And we are given insight into that already in the way Adam and Eve named their sons.

    The name “Cain” means “acquired,” for Eve said, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.”  It is likely that Eve believed Cain was the Savior-offspring promised in Genesis 3 who would crush the serpent’s head.  For her words are more literally translated “I have gotten a man, the Lord.”  In other words she thought this boy was the fulfillment of God’s Word, the Redeemer come to set things right again.  So you can see how Cain certainly would have been the favored son.  He was the one in whom the family had invested its hopes.  

    The name “Abel,” on the other hand, means “breath” or “vapor,” like the moisture of your breath on a cold day that just vanishes away.  Ecclesiastes 1 uses this word to describe life in this world as mere “vanity.”  And the Psalmist uses this word to describe our mortality as fallen human beings, saying, “Certainly every man at his best state is vapor” (Ps. 39:5).  With that name, Abel must have certainly felt his second place status in the family.  Cain was the man; he was just the younger brother.  Perhaps this resonates with some of you and how things are or were in your family life in this fallen world.

    And yet, with the Lord, the last are first and the first are last (Mt. 20:16).  For it is written in the Old Testament reading that the Lord had regard for Abel’s offering, but not for Cain’s.  With repentant lowliness Abel the shepherd offers His worship in humble faith, bringing the best of his flock.  As the Lord had sacrificed an animal to clothe Adam and Eve and to cover their shame, Abel brings a choice and unblemished lamb as a sacrifice of blood for atonement.  Abel knew he needed God’s mercy; he needed to be lifted out from under the curse.  His worship was right, for his hope was in the Lord.  It is written, “The Lord raises those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8).  “Though the Lord is on high, yet He regards the lowly. But the proud He knows from afar” (Ps. 138:6).  

    That’s why it is that Cain’s worship was not well received.  It is clear from the Lord’s response to Cain’s offering that his was offered faithlessly, as a mere work to be done to try to earn or keep God’s favor.  Cain the farmer came with a prideful heart, full of faith in himself, not in the Lord.  Cain was willing to go through the motions, offering some of the fruit of the ground which he had cultivated.  But it was not pleasing to the Lord, because it was not offered in faith.  Instead of repenting of this and seeking the Lord, Cain became angry both with God and the one to whom God showed favor.  Cain killed Abel, spilling his brother’s blood on the ground.

    However, even in death God has regard for Abel.  For Abel is a picture of Christ, our Good Shepherd, who offers up the choicest sacrifice of His own life for us sinners.  He is the Shepherd who is also the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  The world is full of faithless Cains who despise Christ and His people and plot His death.  And yet the very shedding of Jesus’ blood covers us who are made from the dust of the ground.  It restores us to life and gives us a share in His resurrection.  Abel points us to Christ our Brother, who was brutally killed and laid in the dust of death, but who was also vindicated in His resurrection.  And as the ground opened its mouth to receive Abel’s blood, so we now open our mouths in the Sacrament to receive the blood of Christ which cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7), including the sins that have been done to us, sometimes violently.  In Jesus the humble will be exalted (Lk 18:14).  For He was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25) so that we, too, may be raised to share in His glory.

    The Lord regards the lowly.  He justifies the one who humbly relies on His mercy.  He declares the penitent believer to be righteous.  The difference between Cain and Abel, then, is precisely also the difference between the Pharisees and the tax collector.  Both approach God in worship.  But the way in which the Pharisee approaches is radically different from the tax collector.

    Like Cain, the Pharisee is full of faith in Himself.  He does reference God in his little praise service, but he’s really the star of his own show, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  The Pharisee, too, would wish his brother the tax collector dead, were it not for the fact that the tax collector makes him look so good by comparison. And please note here: the Pharisee’s problem was not his sense of right and wrong; that’s basically on target.  It’s good not to be an extortioner or an adulterer.  It’s good to fast and to give the 10% tithe of what you possess in offerings.  “The Law of God is good and wise and sets His will before our eyes.”  But, we use the Law lawlessly if we try to turn it into a way to justify ourselves in God’s presence, as if God owes us something now for our good living.  “God, I thank you that I’m not like those people I see on TV and in the news–criminals and weirdos and perverts.  I thank you that I’m much more ethical than those thieving, selfish politicians and corporations.  I thank you that I was raised to be a good person and that I love my family and my country.”  That’s not the worship of God but ourselves.  Such faith is bent away from God back in on the worshiper.  It is the idolatry of the self.  And that sin, the sin of pride and self-righteousness is no better than any of the other sins the Pharisee lists.

    In fact, in many ways the sin of pride is worse and more dangerous.  For it deceives you into thinking that everything is good with you.  However, it is written, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7), what the heart loves and trusts in.  And if you think you’re doing fine spiritually, if your faith is in yourself, then why would you need and trust in a Savior like Jesus?

    When all is said and done, the Pharisee and the tax collector are in the exact same condition.  Though one looks good and impressive and the other doesn’t, both share the same heart disease called sin.  Both of them are foul and unclean within.  The tax collector is showing symptoms of his sin-disease, whereas the Pharisee seems to have his mostly under control.  But both have the same root disorder; both are just a heartbeat away from death, as the Epistle says also to us, “You were dead in trespasses and sins.”  

    Learn, then,  from the Pharisee and the tax collector.  Believe the terminal diagnosis that the Law has made about you.  Humble yourself before God in true repentance.  Seek His healing, His cleansing, His righteousness.

    For it is written, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart–these, O God, You will not despise.”  The Lord certainly did not despise the tax collector as the Pharisee did.  The tax collector comes not in pride but in lowly penitence and faith.  This is not fake humility.  The tax collector stands afar off from those praying in the temple; for he knows how his sin cuts him off from God and others.  He does not raise his eyes to heaven; for he knows he deserves no heavenly blessing.  He beats his chest when he prays, in token that he is worthy to be punished severely.  He cries out his only hope, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”

    The tax collector places his confidence and trust not in anything about himself but entirely in the Lord and His mercy.  He despairs of his own merits and character and entrusts himself completely to the merits and character of God.  He relies not on his own sacrifice but on God’s sacrifice.  For remember where the tax collector is praying–in the temple, in the place where sacrifices take place!  Therefore, at the very moment in which the tax collector cries out, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” his prayer is being answered right there in the sacrifice which the Lord provided to cover his sins.  The tax collector trusted in the Lord’s sacrificial mercy, and he yearned for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all these things to their fulfillment.

    In the end, it is the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, declared righteous in God’s sight.  And so it is also for each of you who pray with humility and penitent faith, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”  For the sacrifice has also been made for you–in the temple of Jesus’ body, on the cross.  There Christ, the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all.  By His shed blood your sins have been fully atoned for, and you have been put right with God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  You are justified before God, declared righteous in His sight through Christ.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  It’s all yours because of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We boast and brag not about ourselves but Him.

    “He who humbles Himself will be exalted.”  That statement is fulfilled in Jesus, who humbled Himself even unto death for you, and who is now exalted to the highest place at the Father’s right hand.  God grant this also to be true of you in Christ.  Like Abel, like the tax collector, let us offer up true worship, which is faith and hope in the Lord’s mercy.  Humble yourselves before Him, confident that He will lift you up in due time.  And you, too, will go down to your houses today justified and righteous.

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